Lyric Theatre, Belfast
7 February – 8 March 2015
On the back of the huge success of Quietly, new best friends Soho Theatre, the Abbey Theatre and the Lyric Theatre have come together to produce the new Owen McCafferty play, Death of a Comedian.
With the triad of major theatres producing, and with McCafferty on the crest of a wave that saw Quietly hailed as the best Irish play for years after runs in the Abbey, the Lyric and Soho, this looks like a perfect partnership.
The play examines the personal compromises needed to make a career in stand-up comedy, through the journey of comedian Steve Johnston (Brian Doherty) as he makes the move from dingy comedy clubs with hatbox stages to big venues and eventually TV. Manipulated by his slick agent (played by Shaun Dingwall) he begins to compromise, grows distant from the girlfriend (Katie McGuinness) who has guided his career to this point, and finally becomes the embodiment of everything he despises.
With Soho Theatre’s pre-eminent position as central London’s main comedy venue, the play ought to be a good fit for venue and production team. It ticks all the boxes, the new Lyric writer in residence, feted in Dublin, working with the industry experts in producing comedy: the package is seductive.
However, as a piece of writing, and as a piece of theatre, the play falls far short of the best work by those involved.
There is no doubt that as a forensic examination of the self-betrayals necessary for success in show business, it is chillingly accurate. Johnston’s journey from edgy, but ethically sound underground club comic to skin-crawlingly ingratiating TV star is an uncomfortable watch, and the manner in which the play is staged and directed makes us feel complicit. We are the public for whom these compromises with authenticity are made.
We like Johnston and want him to succeed, to make it. And we know that to make it, he has to sup with the devil. The drama comes from our hoping that he can do so without being tainted. It’s a Faustian story of doing deals with that which you hate in order to get the wealth and success you crave.
But with that structure come the problems – as drama the piece is flawed. Everything hinges on such a simple premise, that what happens the other characters is largely uninteresting – we care only about whether or not Steve Johnston makes it as a comedian, and are engaged only by his internal conflict.
This means that the parts of the girlfriend and the agent (neither of whom merits a character name) are written paper-thin. There is no character arc for them, no complexity for the actors to play. The girlfriend spends the early scenes describing the internal conflicts that she knows trouble her man, to expositional effect. And of course she’s loyal and committed and loving and wise: she sees through the agent’s slick patter and warns her guy of the dangers of losing his soul. In sum, her character can be described as a distillate of the ‘Stand by Your Man’ loyal wife values. One might even venture that the character is so poorly drawn it points to a shortcoming in McCafferty’s writing.
Likewise Shaun Dingwall’s agent: he is essentially a stereotype of the manipulator that we’ve come to know from countless films, TV dramas and plays. There is no depth to the part. The writing even acknowledges this – Steve Johnston challenges him at one point, asking to know some personal details about him. The playwright brings the shutters down on that. The agent is single, no children, parents dead – he has no family contacts. It’s as if we are discouraged from asking what his motives are, what his story is.
That situation means that we are left with only the comedian to follow – and this points to the fundamental flaw in the play. The simple premise means that the audience are very much passive observers, allowed to witness the career rise and moral fall of Steve Johnston. What we do not have is a burning question that the play seeks to resolve, something that provokes us. The play unfolds with its very simple linear structure towards the eventual success of Steve Johnston, and his concomitant loss of himself, but the effect is like watching a TV documentary on a slightly distant screen.
The staging of the play contributes to this. The set is merely four small movable panels that represent a square of wall in four settings – the toilet / dressing room of the dingy club, the comedy club stage, the agent’s office and a larger red-curtained stage in a big venue.
By the midpoint of the play, each of these backdrops has been used for a few minutes and is shunted off, leaving only a bare stage, on which the remainder of the play unfolds. Steve Marmion’s direction is clean and simple, but it lacks the brilliant theatricality he has become known for, in plays such as Anthony Neilson’s Realism and Thomas Eccleshare’s Pastoral. The flatness of the panels and the emptiness of the bare stage create the impression of a two dimensional action. The whole play could as easily be played out in front of a stage curtain with a single mic stand.
There is obviously a requirement in a show like this to have a set that can tour without huge cost, but the stage feels underused. The space is foreshortened by drapes, and screened off by tabs at each side, leaving only a very small central playing area, and in that space, nothing really happens. The actors walk into it and out of it, and that is all. Only in the final scene, when Steve is on TV, does he start to play the space like a comedian: if not quite Lee Evans then maybe Kevin Bridges. The effect is alienating for the audience.
This play is a departure for Owen McCafferty – in a way it feels like it has been written to fit with the interests of its producing partners. But it is too obvious a journey to offer surprises, or for that matter conflicts, ambivalent feelings, or much in the way of empathy for the characters. We know where it’s going, and it duly goes there. There are laughs along the way, but as Steve Johnston’s journey progresses, these get fewer and thinner. And unfortunately, our interest in his character and the story diminishes in parallel. The endpoint is in view from the beginning, and the play takes the shortest route between these two points.
Review by Brezelec