By Aaron Rozanski
Upon entering the Mark Hillery Arts Centre, audience members were greeted by a collection of early 2000s greatest pop hits – a nostalgic delight that set the mood for what would be an undoubtedly jovial evening.
Alex Cohen’s black comedy ‘No Entry’ provided immense fun in the most unsettling fashion. ‘You are all dead’, followed by a wry smile from Jesus Christ’s secretary, certified that this was exactly the humour I adore. From the moment Eleanor Storey strolled out onto the stage, I was absorbed by her confidence and swagger. Her delivery of Cohen’s increasingly dark jokes was perfect, providing that dead-pan tone which is vital to black comedy. However, I found myself surprised that the play was not getting the laughs it deserved, with many audience members appearing uncomfortable with the tone of Cohen’s writing. At points, I admit I was unsure sure when I was supposed to laugh, as much of the humour was of such a dark nature. Potentially, the audience required greater reassurance and validation that laughing was encouraged, as then Cohen’s undoubtedly witty script would have received the reception it deserved. But then again, maybe the point was to force the audience into this limbo of uncomfortableness and joviality; indeed, the play took place in purgatory.
The use of lighting and set should not be overlooked, as Cohen’s unflinching determination to find a freestanding door for his set finally paid off, immersing us in the drab office environment. Notably, the ending reminded me that simplicity often evokes the strongest response, with a single light change being the most powerful moment of the play. Although ‘No Entry’ fashioned a brand of humour that may alienate some Michael McIntyre enthusiasts, the talent of Cohen and Storey carried the piece, starting the evening with a heavenly standard.
This was followed by ‘It’s Not You’ by Jenny Pavitt, providing the only non-comedic piece of the evening. Ed Cook and Abby Priestley took turns reciting the two longest letters known to humanity, discussing dissatisfaction with each other and themselves. Abby Priestley’s truthful performance stood out, engaging the audience with the emotional variation required when delivering a ten-minute monologue. Her vulnerability contrasted beautifully with her exasperation, capturing the complexity of Pavitt’s character. I found myself annoyed that other characters remained on stage for her monologue, as she deserved the full and undivided attention of the audience. Ed Cook’s performance was also notable, succeeding in the manic energy vital to his character. However, I was unsure whether his nervous appearance was fully deliberate, and at times felt the length of the monologue intimidated him. I found myself urging him to relax, as this would have allowed the emotional punch that Priestley provided.
Pavitt’s writing, aside from the line ‘To tell or not to tell’, was very strong, and the obvious time spent building these characters from their smallest tendencies helped to create two fully formed individuals.
The most bizarre fifteen minutes of the evening came with ‘That’s The Way The Kabuki Crumbles’. The discordant ‘A’ from the band at the beginning secured the atmosphere of utter chaos, and the audience found itself bewildered by the insanity that ensued. For the most part, it was impossible to tell if it was simply the cast and crew members providing the wild laughter, but by the end, even the most cynical of audience members decided to forget their theatrical preconceptions, and just have a good time. In an attempt to provide criticism to a piece that is somewhat impossible to conventionally criticise, I would say that absurdist theatre, whilst it can be insane and nonsensical, must, at its root, have a point. I’m sure Charlie Nicholson would agree that the point was simply to do as many random actions on stage as possible in fifteen minutes. That being said, the confidence and energy of the cast was infectious, and Richard Sharpe provided one of strongest performances of the evening. Acting as a wonderful encore to Singing in the Rain, I congratulate almost all the cast on keeping a straight face in this Amsterdam meets Monty Python nightmare – apart from you Satsuma, damn you Satsuma.
Finally, my personal favourite of the evening was ‘The Landlord’s Arms’, a comedic caper about two clueless hitmen attempting to extort money from an even more clueless landlord. An inherently witty script was carried by three expert performances, and without exception, every audience member was laughing at the comedic excellence of the performers. I felt the actors were confident in Charles Edward Pipe’s writing, which allowed them the ability to improvise accordingly, providing some of the most intense laughs of the evening. When one side of the stage was seemingly unlit, I found myself not remotely caring whether it was intentional, as the actors’ quips at how surprisingly dark this particular pub was made many audience members spit their Strongbow Dark Fruit everywhere. Jacob Freda’s clueless stares into the audience were acutely timed, with Jack De Deny’s absolute command of the stage allowing him to fundamentally alter the script however he pleased. My only criticism was that towards the end, the fourth-wall breaking became somewhat excessive. The old-time phrase ‘too much of a good thing’ rang true, and the actors would have ended as strongly as they started if they’d maybe followed Pipe’s script slightly more carefully. However, the piece was completely infectious, and I commend all members involved for ending the evening with genuine theatrical joy.
Scratch Night does not always provide the most conventional theatrical practice, but as long as you leave your artistic reservations in the snow outside, it is impossible to not find yourself smiling incessantly at the undisputed talent on and off the stage.