Friday, May 25, 2012

'Max and Ivan' and 'Three Englishmen' at King's Place 24th May 2012

I was a bit surprised to find an Edinburgh comedy preview on at King’s Place.  The place is ultra classy, all pine, neat sculptures and £4 bottles of beer.  They have Dyson Airblades in the toilets which, while they have become slightly more ubiquitous, are still my benchmark for an upmarket establishment.  I’ve only been there before for classical music and I always feel a bit out of place there.  I'm just waiting for  a security guard’s hand to gently but firmly land on my shoulder and ask me to “please leave now sir, quietly, and without a fuss”.  I don’t know how these acts managed to wangle their way into here, but it’s nice to see comedy in such a deadly serious venue.

Max and Ivan are… Con Artists

 I don’t want to beat around the bush, this was wonderful stuff.  'Max and Ivan' are Max Olesker and Ivan Gonzalez, and they play every role in a complex Oceans 11 style heist thriller.  It satirises nearly every trope of the genre, and  manages to pull off giant action set pieces with just two chairs and two guys.  The tone of the humour reminded me of Hot Fuzz or the golden age of the Simpsons in that while it pokes fun at the ridiculous aspects what it is satirising, it still, on some level, takes its own narrative vaguely seriously.

Watching what is essentially an ensemble piece with 7 main characters performed by two people does require that you pay attention.  It’s a bit like being thrown into the deep end of a pool to begin with, but each character has a distinct body language and accent, so you learn fairly fast who’s who.  20 minutes into it you can easily tell who’s ‘on camera’ just by body language, let alone accent.  I haven’t seen any of their other productions, so I don’t know if this kind of complex, multi-character narrative is anything out of the ordinary, but it’s a credit that even as the plot twists into unlikely contortions, we can still follow what is going on.  Each of the main characters is quickly and efficiently sketched out.  The characterisation is by necessity, fairly broad (the sinister Russian oligarch, the jaded, upper-class female hacker, etc) but even through all the jokes, and even though the fourth wall was comprehensively demolished I surprised myself by actually caring what was going to happen to them.  Now, I wouldn’t exactly go so far as to say I was emotionally invested in these characters, but most of them have little mini-arcs within the narrative that pay off pretty satisfyingly and you find yourself caring when they are placed in danger.

This was the premiere performance, and things were a little rough around the edges.  The second half was largely performed with scripts, but the charisma of the performers carried them through.  They hit just the right balance between chatting to the audience and getting on with the performance.  It was almost scary how quickly they built up a rapport with everyone there, and the audience was consistently enjoying themselves even through the occasional forgotten line or missed cue.  In fact, the scrappy nature of the performance probably added to the enjoyment, and some of the biggest laughs were as a result of adlibbing.

The structure of the humour seems influenced in some way by the ‘cut away gag’ nature of animated shows like Family Guy.  We repeatedly ‘cut away’ to say, films that the characters appeared in, or a previous heist.  Unlike Family Guy though where the cutaways don’t forward the plot, and just serve to reference some random piece of 80s pop culture, all of these filled in a nice bit of backstory and added to the characterisation.  There are some inspired bits of writing in this, which I don’t want to spoil.  My favourite however, was the “that’s not a con!” sequence, which just kept piling on the ludicrousness to great heights.

I would love to see this again towards the end of their Edinburgh run to compare the difference in performance.  I’m curious to see whether the off-the-cuff nature of the adlibs and the close camaraderie with the audience survive a month long run.I’d like to think it will.    I also want to see how Ivan looks after doing the toothpaste gag for a month (he's right, that can't be healthy).  But I loved the rough edges of last night, and even with missed lighting cues, scripts on stage and forgotten lines wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The Three Englishmen: SQUARES

The Three Englishmen are Ben Cottam, Nick Hall, Tom Hensby and Jack Hartnell.  It’s much harder to write about their set than it is Max and Ivan, mainly because of slightly subjective factors that stopped this being quite as funny as it should be.  The format is relatively quick-fire sketches covering pretty disparate ground.  It ranges from straightforward parody to the surreal. 

Technically there is not much wrong with the show.  The costuming is quick, simple and effective and the characters within the sketches are, like Max and Ivan, quickly and efficiently defined.  We can usually tell what stock character is being used from the first line said.  The jokes are original and fairly creative – there were very few times where I thought that something missed the mark completely, and yet somehow the show felt lacking.  It was loose and ponderous where it should have been razor-wire taut. 

The annoying thing is that there are lots and lots of excellent jokes in this show, but the energy frequently dips, or the show lingers on a particular sketch past the punchline.  The most funniest sketches were the shortest, the two involving boys/buoys were straightforward and funny without outstaying their welcome.  Some just didn't work, for example, the Juliet Binoche joke just went on and on and on with no clear punchline in sight other than copious mugging to the audience. 

It’s even worse when the concept of the sketch is pretty good, and would work if it was half as long (the Wine Shop sketch particularly) but it gets bogged down in repeating what the audience knows over and over again.  If the joke is (and sorry for spoiling this one) that the guys running the wine shop are hopeless alcoholics, it doesn’t get any funnier after the second or third time you’ve shown us this.  3 or 4 minutes later the same joke was still being made and was rapidly getting unfunnier.

Towards the middle, the show began to fall into what I call the Whirlpool of Sympathy.  This is when something happens that makes you feel sorry for the performers on stage.  This happened during a song towards the middle where we were exhulted to sing along - “come on, you know the words!”.  Apparently not.  No-one sang along.  In that instant there is an immediate disconnection between performer and audience.  The audience feels a sense of group self-consciousness and you can’t help but think “why is no-one singing along?”.  A frisson of discontent spreads through the crowd, suddenly there is a dividing line between the act and us.  We are now not on the same page.  I don’t know what the performer must think in that moment, confronted by a sea of silent, uncomfortable faces, but I’m betting it’s not good.  I find myself feeling a bit sorry for the people on stage– it’s got to be a horrible feeling when people apparently aren’t having a good enough time to sing along with you.  It’s hard to laugh at someone when you’re feeling a bit sorry for them.  At this point we are both are trapped in the Whirlpool of Sympathy, it’s  not a funny place, and it's damn hard to get out.

It feels a bit callous to be so critical, really.  It’s clear to everyone watching that everyone on stage is funny in their own right, and that this is material that’s been worked on quite a bit.  There are outstanding moments, for example a sketch where animal behaviour is acted out to the narration of David Attenborough – a concept that’s probably good enough to sustain an entire show on its own.  The low points are the one-joke sketches that go on too long where the one-joke isn’t even particularly funny, like the Chris de Burgh sketch.

Towards the end there is a colossally unfunny celebrity chef song that lands like a lead balloon on the stage.  It just keeps going and going.  And I suppose it’s funny in a way that the audience can’t even recognise the chefs in question without being told who they are (if you think about it a bit harder you realise that probably means this bit isn’t working very well).  We’re asked to sing along again.  Silence.  I feel more sympathy for the performers, who are trying so very, very hard to entertain us. 

Sympathy should not be the emotion that  comedians engender in their audience. I’m convinced there’s a great, lean, punchy 45 minute show here.  They’ve just got to trim the fat out.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “'Max and Ivan' and 'Three Englishmen' at King's Place 24th May 2012”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights