Pros: Simple but highly effective staging, strong performances from the actors and a rapid pace make for an engaging play.
Cons: The stand-up act wasn’t funny and some of the emotion was lost because of the speed of the dialogue.
Death Of A Comedian follows the story of relatively unknown stand-up comedian Steve Johnson (Brian Doherty) from the back rooms of pubs through to TV stardom and the hard choices he must make along the way.
When we meet Steve, he’s principled and concerned with using his talent to highlight social injustice. His manager is his loyal and long suffering girlfriend (Katie McGuinness) who has put her life on hold to support him in the pursuit of his dreams.
Cue the entrance of the Faustian agent (Shaun Dingwall) who spots Steve performing at a pub gig and sets about shaping him for stardom. Almost immediately the agent begins putting Steve’s integrity to the test and slowly we see Steve sanitising his act for broader appeal. He gets his fame, but the price is very high. Shaun Dingwall’s creepy agent steals the show, as soon as we meet him we know it’s inevitable that Steve will be signing away his soul before the play is out.
Brian Doherty is very believable as the Comedian and we really felt like we were at a stand-up gig, which is probably why we were a little bit disappointed that his act wasn’t that funny. Aside from the canned laughter that was played throughout there were few titters from the audience at the jokes. Having said that when my co-reviewer talked about it afterwards we thought maybe that was the point. We weren’t at a stand-up gig after all, we were at a play that portrayed the inane nature of TV entertainment and the types of artistic sacrifices people are forced to make in order to be successful.
Apart from the lack of gags, Owen McCaffery’s play is well written and moves rapidly through the action. We thought the pace could have done with being slowed down in some places, as the emotion was somewhat lost in the blur. We didn’t really get a sense of the tragedy of the breakup of the comedian and his girlfriend or fully feel the extent of his internal turmoil as his principles are eroded.
The set was fantastic: very simple panels that are replaced by progressively grander ones as the comedian’s career goes from strength to strength. The surprising crescendo of this is as he goes an stage at the Apollo the plain black stage is transformed in an explosion of fireworks as the black curtain drops at the back revealing a huge image of the comedian’s face. This moment was extremely effective and ensured we left the auditorium on a high.
Costumes were simple but used to good effect to show Steve’s reliance on others (both his girlfriend and his agent dress help him to get dressed) and in the end shows him giving up his last vestiges of his authentic self as his agent undresses and redresses him as he swops his jeans and Ramone’s T-shirt for an Al Murray style jacket and brogues.
Overall, Death Of A Comedian is a good quality play and worth a watch. It is well written, slickly performed and well staged. If the stand-up had been funny, I would have been hard pushed not to give it five stars.
Writer: Owen McCaffery
Director: Steve Marmion
Producer: Lyric Theatre Belfast/Abbey Theatre/Soho Theatre
Set & Costume Design: Michael Vale
Box Office: 020 7478 0100
Booking Link: http://sohotheatre.com/whats-on/death-of-a-comedian/
Booking Until: 16 May 2015.