Riverside Theatre, Coleraine (1 April); Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry (2 April); The Market Theatre, Armagh (4 April), and on tour
A confession upfront: I spent the first few minutes of ‘One Sandwich Short of a Genius’ worried I wasn’t going to enjoy it. Having heard great feedback from others persuading me it was going to be a hilarious piece of entertainment, I found myself puzzled that the play just didn’t seem to be taking off for me. But then, ten or so minutes in, it finally took fire.
Although good openings count for a lot in any story, the lacklustre first few minutes can easily be fixed in future productions or tours, because the rest of this play is a joy to watch. Not the most original or innovative of theatre, perhaps, but it doesn’t need to be, because this is a crowd pleaser, and it knows it. It was possible to feel the energy of the audience fuelling and feeding the actors in my showing at the Riverside, a sense of good will and genuine enjoyment, scenes punctuated with frequent laughter and applause, permeating the whole show. I was left in no doubt that people were having a good time watching it, and I was wholly glad to have my own initial misgivings proven entirely wrong.
June runs her household like clockwork, determined that everything will be perfect for daughter Becky’s wedding, making sure she and son Kenny have everything they need coming and going each day, reassuring them Dad will be home from his course soon, and wondering where the cat is any time an awkward question is asked. In secret, however, Dad has abandoned the family, leaving June to fill the void with a professional actor hired to take his place, dyed hair and glasses and a restricted vocabulary hopefully enough to fool the children. But to say June is a stressed and highly-strung matriarch would be a gross understatement, and her outrageous plan soon starts to fall apart.
‘One Sandwich’ belongs to the actors, one in particular. Co-creator Shelley Atkinson is superb in the part of June, her physicality in inhabiting the role breathtaking as she totters around the stage uttering shrill, neurotic instructions to her dysfunctional family, all in the manner of someone who could crack up at any second. We’re constantly anticipating the moment she’ll lose it, and it’s fantastic fun watching and waiting for it. The character comes onto set fully formed and realised from the first minute, and even if she is initially let down by the play around her taking too long to get going, once it does, Atkinson is nothing short of incredible. The standout sequence in the play by a clear mile is the moment ‘Fake Dad’ inspires her to cut loose as he reflects on what an alternate reality where he genuinely is the head of the house could look like, and she saunters about dancing to Blurred Lines with a glass of red and Dairylea (don’t ask- go see) in an ill-judged attempt at seduction. To see Atkinson so convincingly play a thoroughly uptight woman poorly attempting to do ‘relaxed’ is a wonderful moment, and one I would happily have had go on longer.
Michael Diana is great fun as the English actor paid to take Dad’s place, treating us to several bursts of song (all excellent) which provide some of the funniest and most enjoyable sequences in the play. He’s a great counterbalance to June’s neurosis, and it’s a great choice to have them together for so much of the play. Of the children, Patrick J. O’ Reilly is served better as Kenny, his overgrown schoolboy persona hugely entertaining to watch, with just enough hints of repressed frustration and instability underneath the surface. Claire Lamont, though, feels overshadowed as daughter Becky, eclipsed by her mother’s eccentricity, her fake father’s theatrics, and her brother’s barely-contained mania. This is a shame, as the one scene in which she does get to shine, the moment she has to finally introduce her fiancé to the family, involving much scoffing down of food and spillage of wine, comes close to June’s attempted seduction of Fake Dad as the best scene of the show. Similarly, I was disappointed not to have more of Conor Grimes, who, like Lamont, gets one great scene towards the end with an overdrawn building and construction analogy, but otherwise feels outshone by the others.
Much of this is almost certainly down to the script, the brainchild of Atkinson and director Zoe Seaton, which, while certainly not bad, and providing, in fairness, some great laugh out loud moments and sequences, feels very inconsistent at times. The first few minutes are the most glaring example, but there are other instances where the pace flags, or characters (Becky and Dad) perhaps suffer underdevelopment, or jokes fail to raise more than a quiet smile. It’s unfortunate, as there are some fantastic moments to be had elsewhere, but the lapses are noticeable. That being said, for all the underwriting Becky and Dad suffer, we do get some nice, quieter, insightful character moments for June (who frankly, could be written as a one woman show and I’d still go and watch), and Fake Dad, while the jests and implications about Kenny’s orientation are kept surprisingly and pleasingly subtle, where it would have been easy to turn his ‘outing’ into a riotous part of the comedy.
As director, Seaton fares much better. The physicality of this show is brilliant, Atkinson’s June tottering about the house organising everyone’s lives one minute, clandestinely making off with appliances and bits of furniture as bills mount up the next, wildly chasing after Kenny and Fake Dad in fits of rage the next. Michael Diana fools us into thinking we’re in the West End on multiple occasions with infectious song and dance numbers, and there’s some great breaking of the fourth wall (literally, in one excellent moment) later on in the play, certain members of the audience depending on where they’re sitting getting more than they bargained for from Atkinson in particular. The staging and design, meanwhile, serves its purpose without being anything remarkable, a fixed living room and kitchen set that sees some entertaining rearrangement and alterations in the course of the play.
‘One Sandwich Short of a Genius’ is a great night’s fun, and you’ll certainly come away feeling thoroughly entertained by the end of it. See it for Shelley Atkinson above all else.