Get a Life! at The Studio@The Festival Theatre Edinburgh (Thursday 28th to Saturday 30th March) performed by John Shedden and Finlay McLean (plus skeleton!) is certainly one of the oddest shows that I have reviewed in a long time and, to be honest, I am still not sure what (if anything) it was trying to say or achieve on this opening night.
The show is from the well-respected “Splinters Productions” company and even the quickest glance at the programme notes makes it clear to everyone that John, Finlay and David Henry Wilson (not performing) know the theatre and performance business in all its many variants very well. The people here are not apprentices learning their trades, but skilled journeymen with long credits to their individual names but, still, this show for me is rarely hitting its target.
Normally I stay away from many modern comedy shows (particularly stand-up) as I see no humour in bad language, crudity and explicit remarks on body functions. The graphics for this show’s flyers intrigued me, and I am happy to say that this show is very far away from the comedy I try to avoid, and some skilful writing proves that crudity and explicit comments in comedy are simply not required. This show is observational in humour for the most part, and suitable for an audience of all ages and tastes. The problem is perhaps the show format itself, as three to five minute (some are longer) comedy sketches remind me of the days when they were widely used in television shows for comedians such as Dick Emery and Dave Allen, but they were a long time ago, and to attempt to present a theatre show over two 45 minute sets with this format is a very difficult thing to try and do with a modern audience.
In total there are 22 named sketches in this show, and that is a lot of writing and different characters to bring to the stage. Some of the characters/sketches are repeating and linked and everything is moving along at a gentle pace with inoffensive dialogue, and clever as some of the dialogue may be and the skills of John and Finlay as performers, perhaps everything is just too gentle. Any modern comedy writer that is coming anywhere near commentary on world politics and figures (as a few sketches here do) is now doomed to almost certain failure as our political leaders, and their behaviour and action (and politicians in general) are often so ridiculous in real life so often that no comedy satire or commentary can imagine them, or match their ineptitude and self-interest over those that they are supposed to serve.
A few angles of approach to the comedy are genuinely interesting here; interviews with Shylock and Hamlet are skilfully written and performed, but unless you have some familiarity with the characters and the plays that they come from, so much of this is simply lost. Shylock in particular is so difficult to present to a modern audience without becoming a racial stereotype, but for the most part this is avoided here. Having in your line up a sketch about critics (The Old Critics) is an interesting move, and the rhyming poetry here is inventive as it name-checks so many writers’ works, but all too often interesting threads of ideas end all too quickly here as the next comedy sketch takes to the stage with their often too easy to guess punch lines or sight gags. One sketch, “The Astronomer” based on the physics of how the further away an object is the more distant in the past we are viewing it is interesting and well written, but I fear that if viewing an object 30 or 50 light years away some of the sketches in this show might be visible through that telescope as some of the material is dated, even if there is an real underlying message of interest there (The Eye Test).
Given the current state of the world and the many years of farce in British and American politics, there was a rich vein of dark humour to be explored rather than thinly veiled references to historical events, but the opportunity was missed here. I also am struggling here to find relevance to the world of a younger audience in many of the sketches here and wonder just how dated some of the humour and the world it reflects might seem to them. Perhaps the biggest problem with this show though is that it is aiming itself at the wrong time, place and perhaps audience. For so much of this show I felt that I was at a Fringe show and if the show was refocused at a 50 minute afternoon or early evening festival audience rather than an evening theatre audience it would hit its comedy targets far more often, particularly as John Shedden and Finlay McLean have more than enough performance experience to improvise as required with their audience. The golden days of theatre variety shows have sadly come and gone and modern audiences so often want more of a direct involvement and connection with what is on stage at a comedy show.
Review by Tom King