A Comedy Double Bill review: ‘stomach-crunching laughter’

Danielle Buckley reviews Ooook! Productions’ double bill, featuring ‘The Actor’s Nightmare’ and ‘The Real Inspector Hound’.

Blurring the boundaries between illusion and reality, The Actor’s Nightmare skilfully presents a nightmarish sequence of events, mastering a variety of dramatic genres to create a distorted nightmare of both clarity and confusion.

The surrealist play presents the confused accountant George Spelvin, played by Matthew Elliot Ripley, in his complete bemusement and disorientation as he finds himself on-stage. As he stands in place as understudy to the esteemed actor, Edwin Booth, he is told to “break a leg”; what Edwin Booth has literally broken two of. George stands in an awkward and isolated bewilderment, completely removed from any sense of context, time or space, his only companions being the audience and the harsh, inescapable lighting.

The play explores the paradox of a fear of the stage in conflict with an attraction to the spotlight. This is made explicit through Ripley’s shifts from a tense discomfort, to moments of natural relaxation in his embracing of the unfolding situation. In its infusion of different dramatic genres from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Samuel Beckett’s absurdist drama, Checkmate, the play entered a distorted nightmare of incoherence and disjointed terror. As George was left alone on stage, his desperate pleading of “Line” fell on the deaf ears of his fellow actors. In the demanding role of George, Ripley was dynamic and impressionable, creating a naturalistic performance that gave a realistic impression of the improvisation that George is forced into.

Comedy was truly found in the timing of each line. Claire Forster, in the role of the actress Sarah, brilliantly presented the actor’s determination to deliver their lines in spite of any glitch, highlighting the performer’s deafness to their fellow actors in their waiting for a cue – a cue that in George’s confusion never comes.

Serena Gosling in the role of Ellen further added to the sense of the actor’s inflated ego. Gosling’s sporadic utterings of “pause, pause, wrinkle nose,” as she acted in Beckett’s Checkmate, vocalised the self-conscious mind-set of the actor. Her obliviousness to George and confident delivery of her lines heightened the absurdist element of Beckett’s work. Adam Simpson’s frustration as Henry, the typical Shakespearean actor, was hilarious. Simpson’s Shakespearean over-articulation produced laughs all round. 

The constant prompting of George from the stage director Meg emphasised the farcical nature of the play, creating laughs from the audience in both the physical comedy of the characters and their awkward, stilted exchanges. Furthermore, the minimalistic setting enhanced George’s sense of isolation, whilst the unavoidable spotlight produced a stifled and claustrophobic atmosphere of inescapability. The desolate stage further produced an ‘all eyes on you’ effect, with the spotlight dragging George to the forefront in his desperate soliloquy.

The Actor’s Nightmare is a must-see play of awkward and dark truths, drawing on our own nightmarish anxieties with great realism. My only criticism would be that the play was too short, a fault that rests with the writer rather than the director, Bart Edge. Whilst the play is described in its title as the actor’s nightmare, it can certainly be described as the audiences’ delight.

Lucy Knight as Felicity, Hamish Inglis as Simon, Andy White as Magnus, and Kitty Briggs as Cynthia in 'The Real Inspector Hound'

Lucy Knight as Felicity, Hamish Inglis as Simon, Andy White as Magnus, and Kitty Briggs as Cynthia in ‘The Real Inspector Hound’

 

Forget ab workouts, Tom Mander’s production of Tom Stoppard’s play, The Real Inspector Hound, created not one, but two theatrical worlds onstage, to the effect of captivating comedy and stomach-crunching laughter. This light-hearted play, depicted as a murder-mystery ‘whodunnit’, explores how far the audience is willing to suspend its disbelief.

The play presented two pompous theatre critics, Birdboot and Moon, both full of superfluous babble and extravagant statements. With the house lights up and the audience sat talking, Abbie Weinstock in the role of Moon strolled in casually and sat down on the stage. She took her place in the seats at the side of the stage that on-looked the action of a highly-stylised, farcical play. Remaining in character throughout, Weinstock and the other ‘audience members’ of the play onstage, created comedy through their extremely expressive reactions. Ram Gupta’s performance as Birdboot was a particular highlight, with his highly-dramatic defence of his starkly lecherous ways creating humour, as he moved from the role of critic to actor.

The ‘audience’ was fundamental to the aspects of realism in the play. The roles of Moon and Birdboot provided a mirror image to our own reception of the play. This realism stood in sharp contrast to the play’s later surrealist and absurdist elements. The juxtaposition between the critic’s world and the actor’s was further highlighted by the set design, with the critic’s area being minimal, in contrast to the highly decorative manor house setting of the ‘play within a play’.

Hamish Inglis as Simon, the smooth bachelor of both Cynthia and Felicity’s affection, captured the quintessential ‘Englishness’ of the murder-mystery with great mastery. Moreover, Andy White in the role of Magnus produced a sea of laughter through his slapstick facial expressions that were further exaggerated by his ridiculously extravagant, stick-on moustache.

The repetitions throughout the play created an unsettling atmosphere which risked monotony. Despite the fantastic energy of the play, at some moments the delivery of lines seemed slightly stilted, with greater confidence being needed in the execution of some great and challenging one-liners.

The Real Inspector Hound offered both its ‘audiences’ the irrefutable opportunity to enter the world of illusion and fantasy in which nothing is impossible. The brilliant Ooook! Productions left the audience to question where the actor ends and the person beneath the mask begins, creating a delicious laughter at the theatrical nature of everyday life and our role in a dramatic ‘reality’.

‘A Comedy Double Bill’ will be performed until Sun 5 Dec at The Assembly Rooms Theatre, Durham. Book your tickets here.

Photographs: Maxim Luan

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