Since Shakespeare, chaos has been the root of comedy. But, as most fans of Shakespeare will know, there is an eventual order to this chaos. When I first arrive at Girton College’s Old Hall, what I see can best be described as chaotic order; actors are frantically rehearsing lines, the doors fly open and closed with movement, and empty booze bottles litter the floor (props, I’m assured).
“It’s our most ambitious project yet” Sam Drysdale (producer) explains. Staying true to the roots of Girton’s Amateur Dramatics Society (GADS), Annabelle York’s production of Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy strikes a balance between comedy and art. As Ella Pound (assistant director) argues, “We wanted to do something that was still fun, while challenging ourselves and what we can do”. Sam concurs: “A lot of GADS stuff has normally been by Girton for Girton, so we wanted to try and reach a wider audience while still staying true to what GADS is about”.
Black Comedy (as Annabelle describes) “focuses around Brindsley Miller [Oscar Ings] and his fiancé Carol Melkett [Sophie Kean]. Brindsley is a broke artist, and in an attempt to impress her father he’s going to try to sell some of his artwork through a rich art dealer. Unfortunately, before anyone arrives, the power cuts, and chaos ensues”.
While they call and wait for a repairman, an old lady [Pieter Durman] from upstairs visits, a neighbour [Isabella Yerassimou], who the couple ‘borrowed’ furniture from, returns from holiday, both Brindsley’s father-in-law Colonel Melkett [Harry Camp] and former flame Clea [Simrhan Khetani] arrive, while Carol’s blind drink mixing only complicates the hilarity. “Chaos”, Ella says laughing, “pretty much sums it up”.
But the play’s intrigue comes from more than just chaotic circumstances. As Annabelle continues: “it’s reverse lit, so when the characters can see, the stage lights are off, and when the power cuts the stage lights come on so the audience can see everything and the characters see nothing”. This concept is what made Sam first “fall in love with the play”: “I looked at the central concept and thought, “there are so many ways we can go with this”. It’s almost annoyingly simple yet so, so clever. Because with farce dramatic irony is the central thing, so you have all these characters on stage, and you can see what every single one of them is up to but none of them know what the others are doing. It just works so, so well”.
If the premise isn’t enough, the characters themselves, as the cast who play them attest, are fantastically written. As I asked each for their favourite, they all went through revision after revision, as there’s something to love in every single one. Some praised Brindsley’s hilarity (“the stuff he says and the stage directions he has — just reading it made me laugh”), some chose Helen for her surprising perceptiveness in a play about blindness, “taking it up a gear”, while many were also a fan of Carol’s “poshness”: “She’s very up herself, “daddy this” and “daddy that”… and she’s also horrible, which is really fun!”. If what draws us to the play is the premise, what keeps us is the individually intriguing characters.
Watching a rehearsal of a few scenes, I certainly feel the power of this. It would be wrong to say the characters gel together well, because that’s precisely where the humour lies, in their inability to properly interact with both other people and their environment. Whether it be Carol angrily slamming down a phone (blind, into the floorboards), Helen’s inability to make out her own property furnishing the apartment, or just Brindsley’s continual fumbling around, the humour is one of laughing at, rather than laughing with — but we’re definitely laughing.
But what struck me most as I watched the group rehearse was their sheer enthusiasm. The directorial team were brimming with passion for their project, laughing at each joke despite having heard each one a hundred times over (what more evidence could you need that this play is hilarious?). If the jokes written into the script weren’t enough, the physical comedy of the actors, so important to such a physical play, had me laughing before I had any idea what the play was about.
In keeping with the spirit of GADS, this is a play which doesn’t take itself too seriously. At the end of the day, Black Comedy is just that, a comedy, and to put it plainly, it’s funny. What better way to de-stress in exam term than to laugh at someone who’s life is falling apart around them?
Tickets for Black Comedy are available here