Two lines to laughter
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
Two fine comedies on-stage last weekend took essentially different approaches to making audiences laugh. One production was Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn, a University Players presentation at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts (PSCCA), Mona. The other was Laff it Off, written and produced by Oliver Mair, held at Little Little Theatre, Tom Redcam Avenue, St Andrew.
The contrasting approaches may well have had their genesis in the writers' backgrounds. Ayckbourn is British and has been a theatre director for 53 years and a playwright for 55. Probably the United Kingdom's most prolific playwright to date, he has written 78 plays.
Mair is Jamaican and his sensibilities as reflected in his works are very Jamaican, just as Ayckbourn's are British (even though for the University Players staging Absent Friends has been transposed to Jamaica). Unlike Ayckbourn Mair is an independent producer of his own works and specialises in revues rather than plays. Laff it Off, he told me, is his sixth production.
power through suspense
By their very nature, plays tend to be complex (and Ayckbourn is famous for his unusually intricate structures and complicated storylines), while the brevity of revue items leaves the writer no time for story development. Though Absent Friends is one of the playwright's simpler works, the characters still reveal themselves gradually and the story builds scene by scene, gaining much of its power through suspense.
Laff it Off offers 23 skits and song-and-dance numbers in two hours. On Sunday, when I saw the show, 15 minutes of that time was intermission, which was okay. But too much of the time - possibly 20-odd minutes - was 'blackout' time between the skits. Mair and the director, Craig McNally, who otherwise did a great job, should arrange the pieces so that they flow into one another without breaks or blackouts.
Future audiences will benefit. Mair, who brought back the show to the Little Little Theatre because of popular demand after its initial two-weekend run at the PSCCA, said the production will travel north in November.
The Laff it Off skits are simple, each based on a single subject. A couple minutes of dialogue introduce the situation and a punchline ends it. There is seldom any story; that is, a middle segment which developed from a situation and is resolved in some way.
The middle section is missing.
Mair uses many of the standard techniques of comedy writing. They include exaggeration, misunderstanding, punning, incongruity, and mistaken identity. Respective examples are the exaggeration of PJ Patterson's measured delivery; the misunderstanding by an interviewer of a job applicant's claim that three other companies are interested in him (he owes them money); a character staring fixedly at a box of orange juice because it has the word 'concentrate'; a crowd of looters at Jamaica House protesting that they are losing income because there have been no hurricanes; and a woman mistaking a handsome young man for the blind date she had been waiting on.
The humour of the writing is greatly enhanced by several production inputs. One is McNally's fast-paced directing and the energetic over-the-top acting of the large cast. They are Mair and McNally, Dalton Spence, Mark Martin, Patria-Kay Aarons, Akeem Mignott, Cristina Starz, Rodney Campbell, Rushaine 'Dutty Berry', and Simone Clarke-Cooper.
Another component is the upbeat music provided by musical director Hugh Douse, assisted by Spence and musical arrangers Alex Martin-Blanken and Sheldon Bernard. Different genres of music, from classical to reggae and soca, play almost continually throughout the show. The music provides lively accompaniment for Laff it Off's original songs and, thankfully, entertains during the blackouts.
The colourful set (designed by Michael Lorde) and costumes (designed by Scarlette Beharie, McNally, Hope Mair and the cast) as well as Michael Holgate's lively choreography and the many video and still images projected on to the backdrop by Dwayne Fagan, also help to keep the audience's mood light.
This wealth of production components complements the farcical nature of Laff it Off. It was not needed for Absent Friends, a realistic play. Its mood is as restrained as Laff it Off's is frenetic. Its set represents an average (beautiful) living room.
The humour comes largely through contrast in two areas. For one, Ayckbourn gives the characters slightly exaggerated mannerisms and traits, then plays them off against one another. For example, Diana (played by Marsha-Ann Hay), who suspects that her friend Evelyn (Shanique Brown) is having an affair with her husband, Paul (Jean-Paul Menou), chats almost non-stop for 10 minutes in the opening scene. Evelyn, on the other hand, speaks in monosyllables.
The other major area of contrast is in the great concern his friends express for Colin (Melward Morris), whose fiancée recently died, set against Colin's cheerfulness when he eventually appears after a long, suspenseful build-up. Realistic dialogue and believable portrayals by the actors (including Canute Fagan as John, Evelyn's husband, and Shawna-Kae Burns as Marge, a family friend) pull us into the simple situation - a tea party for Colin.
Director Brian Heap had overall responsibility for the sophisticated production, which in its quieter way, gave no less pleasure than the riotous Laff it Off. Theatre audiences should be grateful for the choices they have.