Saturday, October 3, 2015

'Nobody's Business' at the King's Head Theatre, 2nd October 2015

I properly laughed once during Nobody's Business. A dog has been mistaken for a person; resulting in this exchange: 

"So what is she?

"She's a Boxer."

"... amateur or professional?"

It's a solid joke, delivered well to boot. It also proves to be the only unambiguously successful gag all evening. There are few things worse than an unfunny comedy, one-liners greeted by uncomfortable silences as the actors' eyes flicker around the audience searching for a smile. Nobody's Business isn't the most unfunny comedy I've ever sat through but it's pretty bad, settling roughly at the level of unsuccessful-mid-90s-teatime-sitcom-pilot-episode.

Set in a shabby complex of rented offices, we follow the variable fortunes of Hugo Roth (Tristan Beint), whose talents lie in negotiating EU bureaucracy and securing development grants for inventors. Despite projecting a go-getter image he's down on his luck, parasitically attached to his artist girlfriend Imogen (Claire Jeater) and pressed for rent by office landlords Howard (Stephen Oswald) and Sybil (Katy Manning). But there's light at the end of the tunnel in the form of inventor Neville (Jeremy Drakes), who's brainchild is a collapsible motorised shopping trolley that becomes known as the "Shop-a-doodle-doo".

Ordinarily I'd give Nobody's Business a vicious critical kicking, but instead I find myself pitying it. After all, the cast does their utmost to wring every molecule of comedy out of Sylvia Freedman's script. It's obvious that Tristan Beint is a talented comedy actor, but his posturing, pompous character is a diluted, dusty old archetype. To various degrees this applies to the rest of the cast, who we watch futilely grapple with paper-thin characterisation and duff dialogue. Katy Manning comes out best, primarily because she throws herself around the stage with infectiously enthusiastic gusto (though she should give it some welly as I suspect this whole affair is intended as a vehicle for her).

But you can't really overlook that none of this is particularly funny. Everything is suffused with safe, inoffensive humour; jokes about curried beans making you fart; people with foreign accents yelling angrily; or a man burning his bum on a barbecue. Not exactly helping is that one of the characters is called Sybil (with her name being loudly yelled throughout the story). You can't help but think of Fawlty Towers - a comparison by which even a genuinely funny play would suffer.

Even the non-comedy portions don't make a huge deal of sense. A smattering: Imogen and Hugo, are supposed to be a long term relationship with (we are told) a surprisingly good sex-life, yet there's zero chemistry between them to the point that they may as well be strangers. Similarly, the convoluted relationship between the two landlords/owners/concierges of the building is never satisfyingly outlined. Even the MacGuffin at the centre of the story, the motorised, compact shopping cart, is a poor choice of invention. The dialogue keeps extolling its qualities, but it's obvious that this dowdy prop isn't going to actually do anything surprising.

Individually none of these flaws would be disastrous, but in combination with the moribund gags and two hour running time it adds up to a dull theatrical experience.  I'll grant that maybe, given how confusingly popular terrible sitcoms can be, material like this does have a home. But it's not here; in comparison to the King's Head Theatre's usual fare Nobody's Business is stodgy, old-fashioned and not very funny.


Nobody's Business is at the King's Head Theatre until 24th October. Tickets here.

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