All in the Timing
Corpus Mainshow, 7pm, until Sat 12 May
The frantic, too-loud laughter of an audience trying to show that they ‘get’ the clever wordplay onstage is always a disheartening sound, not least because, in such cases, the wordplay is rarely clever. These five short comedies by the American playwright David Ives show that language games and smart conceits do not have to produce that desperate reaction. A man explaining why he is a typewriter, the strange rules of a state of existence known as ‘a Philadelphia’, a conversation that replays at the ring of a bell – simply annoying in the wrong hands, Ives’s deft and meticulous skill with words makes these ideas fantastically funny. Peter Lunga and Helena Middleton’s able direction and a well-balanced ensemble cast were not only equal to the linguistic challenge, but brought out the humane qualities of this collection.
An evening like this could feel disjointed; the transition between plays was smoothed by Zoe Klinck’s intelligent set design. The easy way to produce these plays would be with as bare a stage as possible. Instead, the first three pieces took place at different tables in the same metaphysically confusing cafe, providing a sense of continuity that allowed the cast to keep up the pace. At times, there was a tendency to overplay these scenes. Their strangeness and wit shone through best when played straight, and did not need underlining with funny voices. However, moments like Helena Fallstrom’s almost whispered punch line to James Ellis’s monologue showed great sensitivity to both the humour and sweetness of the script.
‘English Made Simple’ and ‘The Universal Language’ were a strong pairing for the second half, the former showing how conversation can work against communication, while the latter presented a woman establishing meaningful contact with another person through a made-up language. Voiceovers and boiler suits usually indicate a kind of student theatre I prefer to avoid: both were actually integral to ‘English Made Simple’. The interaction between Jennie King’s brisk, disembodied voice, and the characters played by Stephen Bermingham and Helena Fallstrom who were meant to illustrate her English lesson, was nicely-pitched. King’s patient articulation of the subtext behind a tense conversation between exes was a particular highlight.
‘The Universal Language’ was best saved until the end, as it was the crowning achievement of the evening. I can imagine this play falling completely flat: the wonderfully complex silliness of the eponymous language, Unamunda, requires fluency, conviction and, of course, timing. The chemistry between shy, stuttering Dawn (Freddie Poulton) and her eccentrically charming teacher Don (Peter Lunga) carried this, making Dawn’s newfound verbal dexterity a joy not just because of its inherent ridiculousness (the Unamunda word for English is Johncleese), but because it struck a chord with anyone who’s ever struggled to find the right words. This final piece summed up what makes ‘All in the Timing’ so successful: finding very odd ways to look at very common problems, with exciting results.