Tuesday 20 March 2018

Owen McCafferty’s Death of a Comedian dazzles at Lyric

SUPERLATIVE: Marty Rea, Garrett Lombard and Michael Feast in Harold Pinter’s ‘The Caretaker’ at the Gate
SUPERLATIVE: Marty Rea, Garrett Lombard and Michael Feast in Harold Pinter’s ‘The Caretaker’ at the Gate

Emer O’Kelly

'It doesn't have to be a marathon, and it doesn't actually have to be for charity - really what you're talking about is some feat of endurance to highlight the injustice of the world … funny isn't important … it gets your name known, not for being a comedian but for being a good person … that's the kicker."

So says Doug Wright, agent to the stars. They're stars because he's a star-maker. And when he takes on comedian Steve Johnston and starts managing his edgy, angry comedy, which has previously been represented by Steve's girlfriend Maggie, there's only one way to go, and that's up the star-studded ladder.

Owen McCafferty's new play, Death of a Comedian, premiered at the Lyric in Belfast as a co-production between the Abbey, the Lyric and the London Soho Theatre (it will play all three), is a howling, enraged damnation of cynicism and manipulative immorality. In another world and era, it would be described as a mediaeval morality play, with its mental brimstone and blazing demand for retribution.

McCafferty puts the comedian Steve Johnston on an empty stage, with just a succession of backdrops to suggest his ascent from grotty club to high-powered fashionable stadium. He performs his act: always the same act, with the same stories … apparently. Between performances his real life comes into play as his agent and his girlfriend live out their parts in his life.

But as the thrust of the act changes, and the purpose of the comedy changes with it, two things happen. Maggie, previously almost his mind-reader, at one with his anger and loathing of injustice, sees him become a stranger … and leaves. Wright, referred to in the text only as "the agent", from being a bit of a self-confessed wide-boy, reveals himself as a Mephistopheles, indifferent to truth, and contemptuous of humanity.

The climax comes when he physically strips his client preparatory to one of his gigs and leaves him to emerge from his moral chrysalis in immaculate designer chic, a socially and politically acceptable butterfly without purpose or meaning. The funny ha-ha man has become funny peculiar, a skewed moral outcast floundering in the self-knowledge of his own hypocrisy. And we can only agree, as increasingly frequently he signs off his act with "I've been Steve Johnston, good night." Was; but is no more.

Director Steve Marmion controls the piece with just the right amount of force: the moral subtleties burrow into your comprehension only insidiously, and are the more effective for it. He is superbly served by Brian Doherty's sure-footed performance as the comedian, from earnest, angry insecurity through his sleepwalk to self-destruction in the light of huge acclaim.

Shaun Dingwell is the agent, slimy, bullying and self-serving to perfection. Katie McGuinness as the girlfriend, however, can't quite hack it in the face of the other performances: she seems unsure of her characterisation, and even seems rather uncomfortable in her own body. The design is by Michael Vale, with lighting by Ben Ormerod and sound by Tom Mills..

* * * * *

If The Birthday Party marked Harold Pinter's emergence from the period of what in another writer would be considered his juvenilia, The Caretaker two years later (1960) was the work which took both the critical and popular world by storm. (Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times had been the only London critic to have a good word to say about The Birthday Party.)

Personally speaking, I think the latter is the finer of the two plays; but equally, it's a fine distinction since both are masterpieces. But the sinister element of undisclosed and almost unspeakable threat which were to become the master dramatist's signature format is stamped more clearly on The Birthday Party than on The Caretaker, which has a slightly soft edge in allowing apparent gentleness of soul to have a putative triumph.

The play is set in an almost derelict house in London, and opens as Aston, one of the two brothers who live there in contented misery, brings home an elderly homeless man for the night. This impulsive act of kindness will reveal to Aston that the outside world is capable of enacting cruelty and suffering as damaging as anything he suffered in the mental hospital where he was subjected to ECT while standing up … because he refused to lie down, and was, in fact, attempting to escape the "medication."

Davies, on the other hand, is incapable of either gratitude or kindness, a small malevolent figure who has lived by battening on others. But offered a pair of shoes by the meek Aston, he rejects them in a kind of power-play. It is left to Aston's brother Mick to re-adjust the balance when Davies makes a play for money to travel to Sidcup where he has left his "papers," which he says will prove his real identity as Bernard Jenkins rather than Mac Davies.

The echoes are the most Beckett-ian of all Pinter's plays, as the roles shift between the three characters, Aston and Mick alternately leaving the flat, while their "caretaker" attempts to play them against each other and establish supremacy over a period of weeks, imagining that his ranting bigotry against blacks, Greeks, and others will establish his credentials with the brothers.

But it is the power of human helplessness which triumphs, with the brothers acknowledging a silent bond after Davies flings Aston's hideous hospital experiences and subsequent weakmindedness in his face. The play ends with a reversal of strength as Aston tells the old man to go, and leaves a trail of silence behind.

The new production of The Caretaker at the Gate in Dublin is directed splendidly by Toby Frow, with superlatively controlled performances from Michael Feast as Davies and Garrett Lombard as Mick. But it is Marty Rea's pathetic, slow-witted Aston which is the triumph of the evening, in one of the most satisfying productions seen for a long time at the Gate.

Sunday Independent

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