The After-Dinner Joke by Caryl Churchill was originally written for radio: and it shows. Action of any kind was banished from the stage, monologues reigned supreme and any visual effects appeared entirely arbitrary. Directors David Ward and Marion Durand did a competent job with what was essentially a plodding and irrelevant play, despite its preoccupation with “politics”. Following the career of ‘Miss Selby’ (played by a sickly-sweet Anna Maguire), the play attempts to reveal the true political motives behind charity and pokes fun at the characters we meet along the way: from a child reluctantly doing a sponsored walk (‘why can’t they sponsor me to watch TV?’) to a mayor with a soft spot for snakes.
The strongest performances came from the ensemble of actors playing un-named roles: there was a witty and strangely believable portrayal of a neurotic woman meditating on a plane and some of the best comedy of the evening was provided by the ‘compassionate old lady’ in a knitted hat. The script itself was playful and witty but somehow failed to engage the audience, possibly because the performance lacked energy and any that there was quickly fizzled out in the face of chaotic lighting. Actors were forced to play entire scenes in darkness, or wait for the lighting crew to catch up and when the lighting wasn’t obviously wrong it was just plain distracting.
The poor technical aspects of the play could have been overlooked, though, if the evening had lived up to its promise of hilarity. It was funny, in a half-hearted way and indeed, could have been enjoyed if the audience could have listened to it on the radio, allowing them to do other things at the same time. This play did not deserve our full attention and most of the time it didn’t have it.
The evident talent of the cast was wasted on this play and it is a pity that such an accomplished group of freshers have had their first taste of Cambridge theatre in The After-Dinner Joke. The decision to put on this play was a wrong-headed one: by the end, the audience were forced to admit that there was probably a reason why this is one of Churchill’s ‘most underperformed’ plays.