Thursday, 22 January 2015

Comedy and instinctive cognitivism

I caught a production of One Man Two Guvnors at the Lowry Centre, Salford last Saturday. James Corden has long since been replaced in the lead role but the reviews were good and the performance pretty much sold out. There is a spoiler ahead.

Sadly I could not see why it had merited the praise it had (this isn’t the spoiler!) Perhaps I am being blind to the transformative powers of a popular actor but I don’t really see how Corden could have redeemed it as the play itself is so thin. It is as though someone were to aim at Fawlty Towers but end up with the kind of lame drama that closed episodes of the 1970s kids TV show Crackerjack. Its feeble attempts at linguistic play made me miss ’Allo ’Allo. Nor did it seem to understand the dramatic possibilities of varying the tempo. (In ‘The Germans’ episode of Fawlty Towers there is both an inevitable slow approach to the coming car crash but the sudden jump to the very idea of “a Prawn Goebbels” is shockingly funny.) Is it just that National Theatre goers don’t often see physical comedy and liked it for novelty?

But the reason for mentioning this isn’t just that it wasn’t very good but that it raised an issue. There were a couple of preliminary pieces of audience involvement in the first half, some breaking down of the fourth wall. (Our man at one point suggested that the responding audience member had misunderstood theatre, that his own questions were not real questions, that this was not pantomime. The audience duly chanted back: oh yes it is.) On a third occasion an apparently reluctant audience member was dragged into the middle of the famous chaotic waitering scene. The balance of no actual shaming events befalling her but coupled with her nervous wordless mere giggling in response to questions was, for the first time in the play, very funny: a gentle comedy of embarrassment (and as I get older I am more and more uneasy and unamused by this so it trod a successful fine line for me at least). But then in an escalation which ended the first half she got soaked in fire extinguisher foam. In that instant, we were back in Crackerjack and it was obvious that this was part of the play itself. 

When the second half began, I realised - to my surprise - that I was no longer likely to find anything funny, that the possibility had gone. It was as though, without any conscious deliberation, I was responding resentfully to the earlier switch. What had seemed funny was only funny if it were real. Had it been explicitly part of the play, it wouldn’t have even seemed funny in the first place. So it was as though they had scored laughs under false pretences. But such a response suggests that finding things funny might be a kind of a judgement: that it is possible to think one finds things funny when they are not even by one’s own standards. (Then again, mine might be a weird atypical reaction.)