Life Is A Dream / The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice / Comedians
Various venues
October, 2009

It’s amazing how many people think that the default mode of a reviewer is to sneer; I was berated about this at length a few days ago by a taxi driver (“No offence intended,” he said; “Very little taken,” I replied).  I tried to explain to him how and why he was mistaken, but it just didn’t penetrate.  Some targets are just too cherished to give up.

I must admit to something of the same feeling myself – as well as some of the pleasure in writing knocking copy – in this column.  Last issue I crowed about Tim Walker not knowing how recently Inherit The Wind had been staged on Broadway.  This time I ‘m surprised by his declaration that only Michael Grandage could consider staging Life Is A Dream; if this is true, then Michael’s been moonlighting a heck of a lot under various pseudonyms, such as when he put the same play on at the Blue Elephant in 2004, the White Bear in 2002, Camden People’s Theatre in 2000, almost simultaneously at the Old Red Lion and the Grace (now Theatre 503) in 1997 and even at the Barbican in 1999 (when he seems to have used the unlikely alias of “Calixto Bieito”).  Tim also remarks how predictable protagonist Segismundo’s bad behaviour is, without remarking at all on his subsequent redemption or its roots in his bewilderment about what constitutes reality and its values, a bewilderment which is not his own but is foisted on him by his situation and the deceit of those around him.  Some things, as Tim observes, “one need hardly add”, but some other things one does need to.  Such as, for instance, that The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice is not merely “Terry Johnson’s version of the 1998 film”, but his revival as director of Jim Cartwright’s 1992 play.  One might almost think Tim hadn’t realised that it began as a stage work.


Elsewhere in this issue, though, Tim has said something much more serious.  His review of Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians – or at any rate of the two of its three acts that he saw, having left before the final scene which puts the foregoing into sharper focus – calls for the production to be closed.  This strikes me as an astounding relationship between a reviewer and the material reviewed.  Tim admits that he cannot tell the difference between the portrayal of regressive attitudes and the attitudes themselves; presumably he can tell the difference between the sharpshooting in Annie Get Your Gun and the discharge of real firearms, between Hara Yannas in It Felt Empty… and an actual prostitute, or between Diana Vickers’ portrayal of an introverted teenager in Little Voice and the real thing.  What’s different here?

Ah: people are laughing at loathsome jokes, he says.  (Evidently he wasn’t sitting near Patrick Marmion, who remarks in his review on how unfunny the gags in question are.)  Tim doesn’t seem to consider the fact that one can have a complex response to a joke, laughing at the craft of a punchline even as one abhors the values behind it – “scowling at themselves as they chortle”, as Susannah Clapp puts it in her review – or that the laughter is actually at the failure of the whole comic enterprise, the “debased sensibility [which] is the butt of our mirthful condescension”, in Lloyd Evans’s words.  No such complexities exist, apparently, for the people Tim saw – “a peculiarly primitive audience”, he writes, including one whose laugh “sounded like a dog whimpering”.  There’s a deep dramatic irony in his deploring racist and sexist jokes whilst employing the rhetoric of subhumanity to describe those who laugh at them.


I feel slightly proprietorial about Comedians, having myself played the role of George McBrain, the Northern Irishman who attains success by throwing out  his principles in mid-act.  And in agreement with Tim’s basic position, it’s certainly true that in defiance of its title, the most crucial moments of the play depend on the utter absence of laughter.  During the second act, when the five acts from Eddie Waters’ comedy class face try-out spots in a Mancunian club, Gethin Price’s final piece must be all brutality and menace, and the third-act post-mortem discussion between Price and Waters needs likewise to ensure that the audience are given no opportunity to relieve themselves with even an inappropriate giggle.  Perhaps if Tim had seen the latter he might have appreciated how David Dawson and Matthew Kelly play the latter sequence masterfully: not a snigger in evidence, and scarcely even a wince at Price’s enumeration of what “truth” means (very Trevor Griffiths, very 1970s earnest socialist-realist).  Kelly has left his days as a TV presenter far behind: he may not be an actor of Chekhovian nuance, but he is one who unfailingly applies himself with assiduity and conviction to whatever his role might be.  Dawson is less consistent.  His Gethin is a malevolent elf, which at times reminds us that the true elves of folklore are beautiful, shimmering sadists, but at others takes the form of a feyness that lets us off the hook too easily.  Even the two or three muted laughs during his spot are too many.

Another significant point about the play and its revival today is glanced at by Dominic Maxwell (himself a reviewer of comedy as well as theatre) when he alludes to “the recent reintroduction of ‘ironic’ sexism, racism and homophobia into comedy”.  There have been a number of news stories in recent weeks about supposedly inappropriate jokes, and I can’t help feeling that maybe we do once again need reminding of the vital importance of humour that subverts our prejudices rather than indulging them.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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