Sunday, June 23, 2013

'Death Ship 666!' at The Courtyard, 21st June 2013


I've always felt that comedy works best in as stripped down a form as possible.  A general rule (and one with obvious exceptions) is that the more money you throw at a production the less funny it becomes.  Intricate staging, expensive props and pyrotechnics are all great at creating spectacle, but spectacle isn't funny.  On the other hand, all you need to make them laugh is a stage, a script and some talented actors.  Death Ship 666! goes a long way to proving this rule

The show is a very, very loose parody of Titanic and other ocean-based disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure.  The characters are clichéd archetypes - but that's the joke.  So we have an architect character called The Architect, an evil rich couple called the Evil Rich Couple and so on.  These people are thrown together on 'Death Ship 666', which appropriately has dynamite planted all over it, the electrics are wired to explode, it's  Captained by a maniac and is also infested by thousands of revenge-hungry bears.  Can our plucky cast survive this ship of doom?  Can they survive their tragic pasts?  Can they survive each other?


The cast: (left to right): Michael Patrick Clarkson, Carrie Marx, Lydia Hourihan, Andy Utley, Harrie Hayes, Mattias Penman
It's jam-packed full of gags and though not all of them hit the mark, there's enough of them, and they're delivered so fast that even if a few miss, you're still laughing from the previous ones.  This style of comedy is reliant on a constant sense of forward momentum, scenes dissolving into each other without giving the audience time to get complacent.  This headlong dash to the finish line creates a manic atmosphere, which in turn adds to the humour - if we in the audience are having to work on keeping up, how must the actors feel?

The production that kept coming to mind as a point of comparison is the excellent stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps.  Both shows rely on the talent of their cast, a taut, fat-free script and an audience all-too-willing to suspend its disbelief.  For example, The 39 Steps stages a dramatic chase sequence in and on top of a moving train with just a few chairs.  Death Ship 666! has a scene where the ship has been cracked in two, leaving a chasm between our cast and the lifeboats - they convey this by having someone lie on the floor echoing the word "chasm" whenever it's said.  It's simple, works in the context of the play and is, above all else, funny.

This is the philosophy behind Death Ship 666! - if something's not funny it shouldn't be in the show.  I imagine that the script has been squeezed for every ounce of funniness time and time again, every moment of dialogue maximised for pure comedic intent.  The result is that every extraneous element has been pruned away.  This leaves a show that's just over an hour long, which for me is great.  You're never in danger of getting fatigued, or worse, bored by what's going on.  A longer version of this story might struggle to maintain the level of comedic intensity, but here it's just about right.


That everything fits together so well at such a fast speed is a testament to the actors, all of whom have to contend with playing multiple parts, with lightning quick costume changes and various props to deal with.  There's not a weak link in the cast, though in a production like this you don't really have the option of having any dead weight on stage.  

Perhaps most impressive was Harrie Hayes' Grandma.  She's our sort-of protagonist, taking the role of Kate Winslet's Rose character in Titanic, framing the story as an old women reminiscing to her granddaughter.  There's a great repeated gag that everyone in  her flashback calls her "Grandma" too, despite her being childless.  Hayes nails a perfect brand of ditzy, lovelorn flightiness.  Even though the role is a satire of the epic romance in Titanic it's never mean-spirited or cruel, despite her ditziness we're roughly on side with Grandma throughout.  In the midst of this dense self-referential, comedy, Hayes strikes a recognisable and (just about) genuine emotional chord in her desire for children and in her love for the dashing, yet tortured architect.

Another stand-out was Andy Utley's, he plays a dual role as the Captain and an Evil Electrician hellbent on bringing the ship down.  Utley occasionally plays both character in the same scene, wearing a jacket on one arm and turning in profile to the audience to show who's speaking.  These aren't the most delicately drawn characters, but even so, there's a clear (and funny) delineation between them.  I particularly enjoyed his Evil Electrician, who has a perfectly pitched scheming sneer plastered all over his face at all times.  


I feel guilty not specifically mentioning the other cast members - this is very much an ensemble piece with everyone working in perfect synchronisation.  This harmony leads to some surprisingly complex sequences, in particular a great parody of 'One Day More' from Les Misérables.  This comes out of the blue, and the cast slide effortlessly in and out of various roles, singing their way through the entire, multi-part song as if it's no big deal.  The very fact that the show (which to that point has revelled in simplicity) suddenly shifts gears to pull off a complicated musical number is funny in and of itself.

Death Ship 666! is a damn good fast-paced piece of comedy theatre.  Though what's happening on stage is consciously ramshackle there's a consistency to the whole production, ranging right on down to the portholes stuck on the theatre walls and the white nautical rope used to cordon off seats.  Most importantly though, this is funny throughout, I had a great time.

Death Ship 666! is at the Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton until the 30th of June (tickets here), then at the Laughing Horse @ The Free Sisters in Edinburgh from the 4th - 25th August (tickets here)

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1 Responses to “'Death Ship 666!' at The Courtyard, 21st June 2013”

sheila taylor said...
June 23, 2013 at 7:50 PM

Great review, so sorry I couldn't make it, well done you guys! I said you would be famous one day!


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