Pros: Vulnerable performances, detailed direction and challenging content are combined to create a completely unpredictable and therefore absolutely riveting production.
Cons: The play raises many interesting questions, but it feels that some of them are not examined thoroughly enough.
Six months ago, James Thomson was compiling research for a verbatim theatre piece about family, by secretly recording hours of conversation taking place in his own family home. Then, unexpectedly, his father died. In Laughing Matter, Thomson has something he needs to get off his chest: he can’t help but think that the death of his father doesn’t matter at all.
Laughing Matter is complex. It is a play that is both deeply scientific and unabashedly literate, in equal measure. Its power lies in its ability to consistently convince us that there is no difference between philosophy and physics, science and Shakespeare, or fact and fiction. By presenting them simultaneously and teasing out thematic similarities, the play argues that they are actually one and the same.
Laughing Matter is also wholly unpredictable. Thomson, playing himself, has the ability to sneak up on you in plain sight, hidden behind a nervous smile or a stifled chuckle. In this way he gains our trust so that he can surprise us with unexpected emotion (or lack thereof) and insight. He’s one third stand-up comedian, one third supply teacher and one third broken young adult, guiding us through the conceptual twists that each new scene brings with charisma and vulnerability.
Thomson isn’t the only one with tricks up his sleeve. Immersive sound design is used sparingly throughout, so that each time I was subject to a new kind of audio deception I couldn’t help but scan the auditorium in an attempt to figure out how they’d pulled it off. Meanwhile, impressive video design adds impact to Thomson’s monologue, displaying galaxies and universes as he fervently describes them. As the vastness of the universe was explained to us and projected stars flashed by on the back wall, I began to feel as if I had stumbled into a kind of science fiction TED Talk. Paul Lichtenstern’s detailed direction, in combination with the spare set, ensures that every onstage movement carries meaning, particularly those of Keith Hill, who plays the protagonist’s late father with a recognisable weariness.
As the play turns its attention away from the process of grief and begins more to question the value and function of verbatim theatre, it becomes increasingly meta and risks inaccessibility to those less interested in theatrical dramaturgy. It avoids this gracefully, though it provides very little narrative resolution or answers to its questions. This is perhaps unimportant when the questions it asks are so thought provoking, though I do feel that some may have benefited from a more thorough examination. I attended the play with someone to whom the subject matter of the play was very close, so when the play raised the issue of the morality behind using this subject for audience manipulation, then swept the issue aside, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated for her.
Nevertheless, Laughing Matter is an utterly compelling and uniquely theatrical experience. You won’t find storytelling quite like this anywhere other than the King’s Head at the moment and that is to be commended. I urge you to see it for yourself and come to your own conclusions.
Author: Paul Lichtenstern and James Thomson
Director: Paul Lichtenstern
Producer: Tahmid Chowdhury
Box Office: 0207 226 8561
Booking Link: https://kingsheadtheatre.ticketsolve.com/#/shows/873554404/events/127794840
Booking Until: 16th July 2016