According to Issey Ogata's curtain speech on his press night, this three-week stint at Shaftesbury Avenue's Lyric Theatre is the Japanese character comedian's longest-ever continuous run. Producers G&J are clearly aiming for the Japanese expatriate/tourist market – the bilingual programme is a dead give-away – but last Wednesday night, the Gaijin in the audience were in a slight majority.
The sketches performed in this "catalogue of Modern City Life" are largely those first seen on Ogata's previous London visit in 1995. Most of them deal with the culture of the white-collar salariman: the tortuous writhing on a packed, stalled commuter train, the immense pressure to get it always and perfectly right which leads one poor specimen into a kind of hysterical amnesia, the comical alienness of the former business-owner reduced to humping sacks of cement on a building site. But rather than simply holding such characters up to ridicule for easy comedy of embarrassment, Ogata informs his work with a sympathetic warmth... an affection, even: we feel for the 42-year-old mummy's boy at "The Marriage Introduction Service" recounting the details of what was obviously the only actual date of his life; the apparent desertion of a middle-aged man in a karaoke bar by his young son is positively poignant.
Ogata's sketches last ten to fifteen minutes apiece; after each, he retires to the side of the stage for a swift but unhurried costume change and possibly the merest touch of make-up – a pencil moustache or a dash of lipstick – before emerging as, for instance, a nurse auditioning for a Hawaiian band. His physical ability is extraordinary; he adopts a seemingly completely different posture and body language for each character, fleshing out the portrait with a simple but telling tic of some kind, whether physical – the father in the bar, for instance, sliding his jaw from side to side as he laughs – or verbal – as with the building-site worker's innumerable variations of tone on the word "please". In "The Politician's Speech", he largely eschews words altogether – the occasional intelligible phrase ("Britain and Japan have always been friends", "As I always like to say...") emerges from a Ralf Ralf-like murk of guttural rumbling and all-purpose platform gesturing, which slides imperceptibly and ludicrously into a fan-dance.
A simultaneous translation is provided over headsets, although "snappy delivery" is not one of the five hundred phrases one would most readily apply to translator Timothy Screech. It is entirely on Ogata that the evening stands or falls, and ultimately it stands really rather impressively.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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