Thursday, September 11, 2014

'Wingman' at the Soho Theatre, 10th September

It's a horrible feeling to realise you're going to hate something five minutes in.  Your stomach clenches into a pressured ball as you glance furtively at the exit to the theatre, suddenly envious of every other human being on the planet on the other side. Wingman might have been tailor-made to rub me up the wrong way; a spiral of crap baby jokes and gloopily sentimental observations on life and family with all the social insight of a Hallmark card.

Wingman is the brainchild of Richard Marsh, playing what I hope is a heavily fictionalised version of himself: a paranoid emotional leech that can't see beyond the end of his own nose. The theme of the show is self-flagellation, a litany of Marsh bemoaning his personal worthlessness, his neurotic tendencies and his innate pettiness.  

The show begins with cancer humour (oh joy).  In rhyming couplets we hear how Marsh's mother has developed a tumour called "The Bastard".  She dies soon afterwards, spending the rest of the play as ashes in a pink plastic tube.  Then Len, Marsh's estranged Dad, shows up.  Played by Jerome Wright in the mode of an eccentric relative from a mid-90s sitcom, he's all outrageous comments and extroversion.  Marsh is incandescent with fury at his father for abandoning the family, exacerbated by his father's nerve in turning up at her deathbed and subsequent funeral.  The two characters quickly fall into traditional comedy roles with Marsh as straight man to his Dad.

The repair of their relationship comprises the meat of Wingman, a healing process seen through the prism of an unplanned pregnancy.  Marsh has gotten Brigitte, one of his co-workers pregnant.  She subsequently gives birth to a son, and gradually grandfather, son grandson and Brigitte form an ersatz family unit and everyone skips away happy. This is primarily delivered as a semi-rhyming monologue from Marsh, somewhere between a poetry and stand-up comedy.  It's remarkably similar in form to Andrew Maddock's The Me Plays (currently playing at The Old Red Lion), though the stage presence of his father gives the show a little more leeway to dabble in comedy sketches.  

Fundamental to Wingman is the conceit that Richard Marsh is a terrible person.  This is all too easy to believe; he's petulant, self-centred and genuinely unpleasant company for much of the play.  Though we hear at length about how his father abandoned him, the Len we meet is a jocular, upbeat and sincere man who doesn't deserve the hatred heaped upon him by Marsh.  The apparent intention is that Marsh's anger will slip away as he gains a new understanding of life.

Theoretically this allows for the arsehole we meet at the beginning to end the play as a well-rounded individual happy with his new responsibilities.  But this is fatally undermined by the dramatic structure - namely that every other character exists purely as a vehicle for Marsh's personal development.  Brigitte spends the entire play played by Marsh as a bad Welsh caricature (seemingly the product of a Gavin & Stacey marathon) and Len the baby is relegated to the status of crap joke machine.  His father is more of a character in his own right, but even so every single action he makes is designed to further Marsh's awakening as a rounded human being.

It's a dramatic oxymoron to create a play where an analogue of yourself is the only important thing, then try to sell us on a moral message that living for others is the decent thing to do.  This, coupled with excessively schmaltzy family drama sentimentality means Wingman quickly curdles in the mouth.  

I could have forgiven a lot of that if Wingman was jam-packed with great gags.  I smiled a grand total of twice, both at Jerome Wright's physical performance.  Fatally, the show didn't wring a single genuine laugh from me (and the rest of the audience weren't exactly rolling in the aisles). Marsh's humour lies in the dully safe no-man's land of comedy occupied by the likes of Michael McIntyre and Alan Carr, gags revolving around the hilarity of men trying changing nappies and the like.  This is comedy swaddled in cotton wool, the prickly edges of life filed away in an attempt to please everyone, the end result so bland it pleases no-one.

As the play ended I quickly exited the theatre, a queasy feeling burbling away in my stomach. I guess what Marsh is trying to do is create a universal story with something for everyone, but this isn't life as I recognise it.  This is homogenised drama: a morass of cliches, false sentimentality and all-too-easy answers - ultimately and irrevocably dishonest theatre.

While The Me Plays, covering similar ground to far superior effect, plays in The Old Red Lion you'd be a fool to plump for Wingman.  

Wingman is at the Soho Theatre until 20th September.  Tickets available here.

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