Saturday, December 13, 2014

'This Is Not a Christmas Play' at the Top Secret Comedy Club, 11th December 2014

This is Not a Christmas Play feels like the Christmas special of a sitcom that ran out of ideas a couple of series ago. Worse, someone forgot to pipe in the canned laughter. Were this television we could change the channel, in a theatre, we're trapped in our seats.

The gossamer-thin plot revolves around flatmates Tim (Jordan Kouame) and David (Matthew Leigh). Tim is a slobbish, goofy, unemployed layabout and David is a persnickety, fastidious jobsworth. As odd couples go, they come across as a Poundland Peep Show. Anyway, it's Christmas Eve and David is having his ex-girlfriend around for dinner because reasons and wants Tim out of the house. Polite bickering ensues. This is interrupted by the arrival of Mary (Alice Coles) and Clive (James Unsworth), two burglars who're casing the house under a series of disguises. What follows is a series of unlikely misunderstandings and cases of mistaken identity that should, in theory, result in hilarity. In theory.

There are few things more painful than an unfunny comedy. Uncomfortable embarrassment writhes in your belly as punchlines are greeted with stony silence. It's not like the audience doesn't want to laugh either, we cling to the semi-successful jokes like a drowning man clings to a piece of wreckage. But when the absolute height of humour include lines like: "I can't deliver a baby! I can't even deliver post!" you're in desperate territory.

I should emphasise that I don't blame the cast for this. They're struggling as best they can to get through this material, a dramatic process that appears akin to being trapped in quicksand. By far the best thing here is Jordan Kouame, who puts an heroic effort into wringing every possible drop of humour from this material. Kouame becomes Sisyphus, painstakingly heaving Robert Wallis and Liam Fleming's boulder of a script up Mount Comedy but being periodically steamrolled flat like a Looney Tunes cartoon when it rolls back down.

Matthew Leigh's David is also not entirely devoid of charm. With his high-strung intensity he's a little like Leonard Rossiter's Rigsby, scurrying to and fro on the set and balling his fists in exasperation at his useless flatmate. Coles and Unsworth are similarly blameless, but they're still stuck playing sketches rather than actual characters.

Jordan Kouame as Tim and Matthew Leigh's David
The bare bones of the plot are solid enough: two old friends on bad terms realising each other's qualities in the face of an external threat. Unfortunately this key relationship is very shakily established. Tim comes across as an unsympathetic freeloader who's taking advantage of his friend's goodwill and we come to understand David as a delusional doormat. There's no reason why we should want these two to remain friends, which drains pathos from the conclusion.

That said, none of the above would matter a jot if This is Not a Christmas Play was funny. As it stands there are long sequences that function as gag deserts; where the audience treks, tongue parched and feet blistering, through silent, numb tedium. These aren't sequences in which the jokes fail to land, rather, they're sequences where there are no jokes at all. It's excruciating to be part of an audience that's obviously not enjoying itself, trapped in the doldrums of a dead silence punctuated only by muffled coughs.

After about an hour of loosely plotted, unfunny monotony things eventually just stop. It's less an ending and more like the last few pages of the script fell behind the sofa and no-one bothered to retrieve them. Eventually someone (I think maybe the stage manager) starts clapping. We join in, but this is the applause of relief rather than the applause of praise.

This Is Not a Christmas Play is at the Top Secret Comedy Club until 4 January, Tickets £12 available here.

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