Homely and unpretentious, The Middle Child presents its audience with a fast-paced hour of comedic experimentation, which, although at times clumsy, unearths glimmers of true hilarity.
The show revolves around an apparently conventional but secretly dysfunctional nuclear family, complete with Mum, Dad, older brother, younger brother, and the poor, neglected, nameless middle child, who runs away from home when her relatives forget her birthday. This story is interwoven with short sketches inspired by phrases and images from the overarching narrative, which serve to plunge us into a sort of parallel universe of slapstick, farce and observational comedy. Therefore, while we begin within the comfortable bounds of the family home, we soon hurtle into a nonsensical jumble of scenarios ranging from that scene in Ghost (you know the one), to a reworking of The Chronicles of Narnia.
To structure the show in this way is, in theory, a clever idea, but in reality, the frequent and often unannounced departures from the storyline made for a disjointed and confusing effect. It was often difficult to work out how each scene related to the last, as actors swapped roles unnecessarily and some jokes seemed to wrap up before they ever reached their punch-line. This was not helped by the fact that, in several sequences, the whole cast were overcome with a paralysing, incurable laughter, which brought us all tumbling out of our investment in the scene and back into real life. Although these little hiccups were often funny in themselves, they seemed to weaken the comedic potential of the show as a whole, as they allowed the scepticism of reality to seep into its cheerful absurdity.
Saying this, there were also times when an acutely observed, perfectly executed scene seemed to rise suddenly out of the surrounding commotion of half-realised ideas. In one sketch, the whole cast morphed into a team of newsreaders, caricaturing their over-pronounced consonants, their zealously insincere grins, and their uncanny ability to fill a whole programme with nothing at all. Other successful sequences targeted the infuriating feebleness of a Virgin Trains’ driver brought to a halt by signal failure, the strange logic of a Monopoly board, and the sickening banality of the talentless Youtuber. Although all of the performers displayed an impressive knack for mimicry in these scenes, it was Emil Sands who stood out, as he slipped effortlessly into the physicality of his different characters, cleverly evoking their different postures and voices. Sophie Atherton and Lottie Elton also reflected a keen eye for detail in their roles, sensitively reproducing the passionate moods of teenage girls, the fussing gestures of middle-aged mothers and doddering cheekiness of little old ladies in effective and well-timed gags.
Despite its chaotic and unpolished presentation, The Middle Child has the potential to be a really funny show. The cast and their directors would do well to concentrate on the sketches which work well, and to forget those that don’t, so that they might explore the full comedic scope of their more successful sequences. This might also help to organise the content into a more relatable structure, rather than allowing it to flit from scene to scene with the randomness of an incoherent stream of consciousness. However, regardless of these small weaknesses, the energy and enthusiasm of the actors still managed to produce a warm and inviting performance, which brought smiles to the faces of everyone in the audience.