You know what I’m in the mood for? The sun is up, Instagram is littered with photos of cocktails and festivals, and people are delightfully sporting their lowest tops and shortest shorts whilst gingers hide in doorways. What I really fancy, out of all the ways I could spend my evening, is going to see a Christmas play. Nothing would make me happier. At least, that’s what the Tron theatre seem to think. Though the dilemma posed in Anthony Neilson’s “The Lying Kind”, about the difficulties of informing an elderly couple of their child’s death on Christmas Eve, is an interesting premise year-round, July is an odd time to put it on. Nonetheless, a black comedy farce sounded like a bit of light-hearted fun, so I will happily exchange my ill-fitting summer clothes for an itchy Christmas sweater if this play can get me in the mood.
Sure enough, we start off with some very snappy and well-timed dialogue from our bumbling policemen, Blunt (Martin McComick) and Gobbel (Michael Dylan). Things quickly get out of hand as the two do everything they can to procrastinate their unenviable task, including fighting a chihuahua, hiding the body of a vicar, and stripping for a slightly psychotic paedophile hunter. The difficulty is that the sheer lunacy of those scenarios means, even when I am fully aware I am watching a farce, I have to suspend my disbelief beyond all reasonable measures. It’s almost as though Neilson decided on these whacky sequences before considering the narrative structure of the play, which has resulted in much of it being a mere building up to those what-a-predicament moments that haven’t been funny for many years.
The characterisations do not help either. It is immediately evident that all the characters exist for a purpose: aggressive mother Gronya exists to create conflict; older gentleman Balthazar exists to be protected; local minister Reverand Shandy exists to be “surprisingly” promiscuous. The characters consist of the most basic stereotypes put in a new situation. Even our police officers have nothing interesting to add. Blunt is meant to be a strategic, ambitious, Basil-Fawlty-Esque hero, whilst Gobble is meant to be the slightly camp and slightly thick Baldrick-esque accomplice. The trouble is that McCormick doesn’t have the comic timing of Cleese, nor does Dylan have the likeable stupidity of Tony Robinson. At least, they do not display that skill here.
Then again, they had a great challenge facing them with some of the themes of this play. There’s black comedy, and then there’s pointless tastelessness. The representation of the elderly as foolish and mentally unstable, and of low income families as police-hating thugs, are bad enough. The icing on the cake, however, was a scene in which a girl tells her mother that her uncle touched her inappropriately and is slapped in response (rather unconvincingly at that). She tries to convince her mother again, and is slapped again. This goes on for a while. What part is funny? Is the mere reference to taboo subjects meant to be amusing? If so, I promise you it was anything but. I felt embarrassed to be watching.
It’s easy enough to say that some people will enjoy this, and that my picky sensibilities blind me to its simple fun. But no. Take the Duchess Theatre’s “The Play that Goes Wrong”, which demonstrates perfectly how farce and slapstick can still be hilarious and genuinely good, clean fun. Whilst this production had moments of enjoyment: a funny meta after the interval, humorous lines and delivery (Something about a vicar saying “religion is fine, but it doesn’t stand up to analysis” really tickled me), and a perfectly decent design raised the production above the play they were working with, but it nonetheless comes off as stale and trying far too hard. The lack of characterisation, believablity, and charm prevent it from being anything more than a tiresome trudge down memory lane. One star.