Touring – reviewed at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds
It’s a very good idea, bang on the money: David Cantor and Michael Kingsbury (TV sitcom writers with a pedigree) set their play in a bland provincial hotel where five hopefuls are attending a weekend course on sitcom-writing. Two are former or resting actors – Robin Sebastian as Gavin sending up his trade from poseur-to-pitiable, and Sarah Moyle as Pam, who may well be on the edge of divorcing an invisible Jeremy. Jack Trueman is Dale, a manspreading braggart kitchen-fitter, Harry Visinoni is Morgan, a painfully cool would-be sci-fi-rap-fantasist, and Jasmine Armfield probably the youngest: a slightly mysterious, self-contained Amy.
Their magisterial tutor, supposedly half of a legendary writing duo, is David Schaal as Frank: full of handbook truisms about flawed protagonists, jeopardy, comic misreading and the need to avoid “jumping the shark” into improbability.
There are a lot of good lines here, interesting in themselves, and I love Frank’s passionate view that all of our culture has been shaped by the reassuring, happy gleam of the TV sitcoms, we all quote and which console us that in the end we will laugh at life’s real embarrassments, disasters and humiliations.
All the potential private flaws of the five are clearly set out, as each tells a short ‘story about themselves’ for Frank to dissect and suggest improvements to; but unfortunately the first half feels as if you are actually at the seminar. There were good laughs in the Bury audience, but even at just over an hour, the first act could do with a trim.
A slow first half is forgivable, but the graver problem is that the only hint of a real crisis coming at the denouement is in the hands of Amy: as the scene ends and they all scuttle off to write their sample sitcom scenes, she reminds Frank that she has been at one of his courses before. But Armfield, successful formerly as Bex in EastEnders onscreen, gives a downbeat TV performance on a real stage. Too many lines are, frankly, semi-audible even in this small theatre. I am sure that as the tour progresses (this is its very beginning) she will settle, slow down and project.
But it’s a problem because her back-story and Frank’s is critical to the whole plot. In the brighter second half, properly funnily and with much glee from the audience, all the characters attempt a different sitcom and unintentionally reveal their own hangups (Jack Trueman’s kitchen-fitter is genuinely touching, Moyle’s Pam is of a Victoria-Wood standard). And finally we get the scene where Amy does hers and outs Frank, and that should be electric. It would be, if it were only done with more conviction and pace and projection, and I hope it will be.
Because, as I say, it’s a great idea and not unenjoyable: but its denouement desperately needs theatricality, something live and important and painful and right in your face. I wish it well. And enjoyed the downbeat, gentle coda, especially for the kitchen-fitter’s sake.
www.theatreroyal.org to Saturday
touring to 1 April, Westcliffe on SEa next.
Tour details https://www.uktw.co.uk/Tour/Play/Jumping-the-Shark/T1951746147/