Theatre review: Death of a Comedian

In Owen McCafferty’s new play, four stand-up routines form an anatomy of a sell-out

Venue: Lyric Theatre

Date Reviewed: February 12th, 2015

Website: lyrictheatre.co.uk

Phone: +442890381081

Tue, Feb 17, 2015, 15:07

   

Death of a Comedian

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

***

Early in Owen McCafferty’s new play, co-produced by the Abbey, the Lyric and London’s Soho Theatre, a small-time stand-up comedian retreats backstage from a so-so gig to perform his own autopsy. “I couldn’t hide myself well enough,” he tells his girlfriend, a supportive and constructively critical partner, as though the maverick spirit of authenticity is anathema to good performance.

Afterwards, though, he encounters an agent, slick and cajoling, who can guarantee success if he will just hide himself deeper: sand down the edges of politics and profanity; aim for the middle; reach for the stars.

McCafferty, an immensely successful playwright of poetic, political and sometimes profane drama, has not rewritten Death of a Salesman, but instead depicted a more deep-seated fear of comedians, playwrights, artists, or any one-time radical who finds success. This is an anatomy of a sell-out.

The play takes the form of four stand-up routines, played out against a series of suggested spaces in Michael Vale’s economical design, interspersed with conversations. Brian Doherty is an initially schlubby, uncertain, non-conformist comedian, Steve Johnston (pleasingly, we first see him wearing a Ramones T-shirt) whose implausibly younger, hotter girlfriend Maggie (Katie McGuinness), merely represents his conscience, advising him to be true to himself, before the fast-talking, contentedly sharkish agent, Doug (Shaun Dingwall) preaches the reverse. For Doug, laughs are “single saleable units”, and he knows how to shift them in bulk.

The model for the play is clearly the Faust myth: a man sells his soul for advancement. “Say I am to the devil what Christians are to God,” says Dingwall’s corrupter, in full Mephistophelean rhetoric. But there are more distracting references – such as the eerily similar roles in Brian Friel’s masterful Faith Healer, a more layered and humane meditation on performance and its toll, or even the psychotic ambition of Scorsese’s The King of Comedy – invoked at the play’s crescendo.

McCafferty struggles to make his play mean something more, and although director Steve Marmion zips along the arc towards bigger gigs with blander gags and ever expanding spotlights, it ends up as a defiantly blokeish morality tale. In action and on the page, everyone is defined by the protagonist: “Comedian”, “Agent” and, most thanklessly, “Girlfriend”. (She’s “worried about just becoming part of my story and not having one of her own”, the comedian tells the agent, which must be McCafferty’s own mordant joke.)

If that makes it sound like a work of anxious self-examination – a sly confession on behalf of the playwright – the surface is still acutely well-observed. It really doesn’t matter if you find these routines funny (plenty will); Doherty’s expertly judged performance commands attention, from hands-in-the-pockets anti-authoritarian everyman to a skipping, would-be Michael McIntyre with a s**t-eating grin. “I’ve been Steve Johnston,” he says at the end of every act, and it sounds more and more like an epitaph.  

 

There is more than one way to die onstage, the play artfully illustrates. The problem, in the comedian’s battle between success and selfhood, is that he isn’t given much self to lose. Until March 8th; Abbey Theatre, March 10th-April 4th; Soho Theatre, London, April 14th-May 17th

 

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