Monday, July 16, 2012

'Lawrence Leung: Beginning, Middle, End' at the Soho Theatre, 14th July 2012

This is Lawrence Leung

How much control do we have over our own identities?  And if we lose control, how can we win it back?  These are the questions underpinning Lawrence Leung’s current show – and they spring from a fairly unlikely source.  I had never heard of Leung before, although he is apparently relatively popular on television in his native Australia.  I can see why – he’s got an awkward and vulnerable ‘nice-guy’ charm; a very easy man to like.  Sitting down in the theatre, I first spotted him dressed in a ‘Soho Theatre’ t-shirt, helping the staff to greet and sit the audience.  On stage he dresses geekily and childishly, in a shirt that’s buttoned up just a little too high, and the stage has a forced perspective design to it, adding to the effect, and making him look even smaller.

The inspiration behind the show is a piece of er0tic fan-fiction, ‘Scandal on Ramsey Street’ (part 1 here, and part 2 here) that features Leung in a romantic tryst with Toadfish Rebecchi from Neighbours.  A singularly unappealing prospect.  Leung’s brother discovered this, much to his amusement, and Leung’s reactions to the bizarre find fuel the show.  Ordinarily I would assume that this piece of fan-fiction was written as a joke to create something intentionally bizarre – but hey, this is the internet, and a piece of fiction where ‘television’s Lawrence Leung’ is transformed into a girl and becomes pregnant by Toadfish probably pushes someone’s buttons.  It must be a very unsettling and creepy experience to read some complete stranger’s fiction about you, especially if you’re having weird genderbending sex in it.  When reading it, I imagine you feel that you aren’t in control of your identity anymore – someone has taken you, and twisted you into a piece of their fetishistic dreams.  This is a price of the curse of celebrity, but on some level it’s something we all have done to us, and all do.  It can be illuminating and also distressing at times to peer into the gap between how we perceive ourselves and how others percieve us.

This is Toadfish from Neighbours
This is fertile ground for comedy, and the first part of the show that focuses on this is hilarious.  Leung’s disbelief at consistently being described as effeminate, and his fear and disgust about what this anonymous internet writer is putting ‘him’ through works very well.  Throughout this section of the show we get a quick showcase of how effective a physical presence he is.  I know nothing at all about Leung’s career, but just based on the way he moves around the stage I think he’s probably a very good dancer.  If he’s not, then he could be – the way he contorts, gesticulates and twists his body to underline his emotions wrings a lot of laughs from the audience.

Following the dissection of the er0tic story, the act takes a little bit of a dip towards the middle.  He begins talking about his experiences with a girl, Millicent, that he’d had a crush on in university.  This is still good material, but the connection to the professed themes of ‘taking control of your identity’ seems a bit tenuous.  This kind of relationship humour seems a little bit cliched after the great opening.  Fortunately he brings it back around to another high point where he dissects the appeal of Colin Firth.

Leung’s use of technology for humour throughout his act is spot-on, and his use of Powerpoint during his act nicely complements his slightly geekish persona.  The ‘Powerpoint comedian’ is a strain of stand-up that, as far as I know, originated with Dave Gorman’s ‘Are You Dave Gorman?’ show in 2001.  It’s style of stand-up that paints the comedian as overly obsessive –  showing us graphs and charts of the obscure data they’ve collected.  Leung uses it to calculate why women find Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ so irresistable, analysing the time he spends on screen, then dividing that by the time spent staring out of windows, or leaning against fireplaces.  It’s a skilful skewering of Firth’s persona, and while it doesn’t really feed into the professed aim of the  show, it works nicely as a contrast to Leung’s own personality.

Centring a show around multimedia and technology is always a risky proposition – I’ve seen comedians die on stage as a result of their laptop crashing midway through their set.  It takes a damn good performer to make them fiddling around with Windows Task Manager and waiting for their laptop to restart funny.  Leung manages to avoid these pitfalls, and maybe it’s luck, but everything goes right – there’s was a bit towards the end of the first half where some members of the audience arrived late, and he managed to launch into a quick Powerpoint recap of what they’d missed.  I genuinely have no idea how he set this up, if it wasn’t in collusion with those audience members he must have a ‘recap’ button set up to launch whenever people file in.  Special mention should also go to the sound and lighting staff – every single cue in the show was bang on.  I wouldn’t normally go out of my to complement a comedy show for being technically proficient, but if these cues were missed the show wouldn’t be half as funny. 

The show was only about an hour long, but in that time you very quickly learn to like Leung and get an understanding of what makes him tick.  I didn’t feel that I was missing out on anything as a result of not knowing who he was, something that I was a bit worried about considering that the crux of the show is how fame is affecting him.  His unabrasive nature works in his favour, helping paper over a few cracks in the act.  A few jokes do miss the mark, two quick bits about ‘Ghost’ and ‘The Sound of Music’ don’t really make a lot of sense or get much reaction from the audience.  Later in the set he makes a ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ reference about the catbus, which does get some laughter - confusingly he then accuses us of not getting it.  This is in the middle of some material about a trip to Japan that possibly verges on racial stereotyping,  and at one point he makes a cringeworthy l/r substitution gag about Japanese accents.  Despite this I find myself prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, his stage persona makes it easy to forgive him when if he occasionally fluffs a line.  In terms of his material these are relatively minor criticisms, and he never comes close at any time to losing the audience’s sympathy.

And this is a Catbus.
A larger flaw is that at times this feels more like a selection of unconnected comedy vignettes rather than a smoothly flowing progression.  For a show entitled ‘Beginning, Middle, End’ it’s a bit structurally confused, there’s a sense that this is a way to tie together all of his disparate ideas.  The connections between the different parts aren’t particularly smooth, and a lot of it ties pretty tenuously into the central themes of control of identity.  Additionally, some parts of the show are him playing sound recordings or videos, which seems to defeat the point of having the comedian on stage.  The climax of the show is him playing a video, and while that video is very funny and does pay off much of what was set up in the first half of the show, it feels like something that would work better as part of a television show rather than on stage. 

It’s hard to criticise Leung too much, while the structure of the show is a bit rickety, all the individual pieces work to varying degrees of success. If the opening hadn’t outlined that the show wanted to explore a particular theme I wouldn’t have noticed or cared that it felt a bit disjointed.  It's a fun night, and a nice introduction to a very pleasant and funny man.

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