TRIPLE ESPRESSO
Arts Theatre, London WC2
Opened 21 January, 2003

It's hard to describe the humour and general atmosphere of Triple Espresso without endlessly repeating the word "nice". This small phenomenon began in Minneapolis in 1997 and has spawned a number of "franchise" companies performing it across America and most recently in Dublin, although the cast appearing at the Arts Theatre in London consists of the show's three creators. Its popularity boils down, one suspects, to there being nothing remotely disagreeable in it.

The format is simple: a coffee-house pianist's 25th-anniversary set is the occasion for a reunion of the musical and comedy triple act he was once involved in. They recount a history of failures and, in flashback, perform folk music, magic and hand-shadow magic-lanternry all with a comic bent, along with the classic vaudeville routine where a kind of fan dance (performed fully clothed) goes awry and one of the trio is reduced to tearing a sheet of paper into smaller and smaller pieces in a desperate attempt to preserve his modesty.

Much of the work is cleverer and more considered than it at first appears, especially the wonderful po-faced comedy conjuring of Bill Arnold as Buzz Maxwell. Michael Pearce Donley has a smooth assurance in his delivery that blends with a whiff of feyness to produce the persona of pianist Hugh Butternut. Bob Stromberg's grinning, slightly dumb gee-whizzery as Bobby Bean is a particular kind of American comic type, often seen in depictions of adult authority figures trying vainly to ingratiate themselves with the kids. His performance is so indefatigably good-hearted that, in saying it gets a bit wearing, I feel as if I'm strangling a puppy. The evening, naturally, ends with the three men's ghosts having been exorcised and their friendship reaffirmed, in that classically American vein of final-reel feelgood.

It's greatly accomplished, it's genial and it's entirely without edge or danger, anything that gives comedy its piquant tang. Look, the following may seem prejudiced to the point of offensiveness, but I promise that nothing is intended by it beyond describing a particular kind of mood. It's just that somehow things seem to make that bit more sense when one reads in the programme biographies that two of the company are committed Christians, and indeed Stromberg has been in ministry since 1989. There's no hint of a religious agenda to the show, but it does have an air that's not an entire world away from a happy-clappy get-together.

The show's subtitle is "a highly caffeinated comedy": a good line, but fundamentally inaccurate. Really it's more of a warming mug of hot chocolate a diet blend so you don't even get a sugar rush to speak of. You just feel comfortable and relaxed. You know, nice.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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