Comedies of Manners, Manners of Comedy
The Stage Club and a Substation visitor assay comedies across the centuries
By Richard Lord
To all those who envy the lot of the theatre critic, believing it to be a long succession of pleasant theatre-going, enjoying a wide range of plays without even paying: consider, please, that we critics occasionally have to sit through an evening of tedium and torpor when every instinct screams that one should just sneak out about a quarter of the way through. But you stay; you stay till the battered end because it is your duty as a critic to witness any show you write about all the way through.
I endured just such an experience back at the start of the second quarter, when the Substation played host to a series of sketches bunched together under the collective title Nonsensical Idiosyncrasies. This collection was supposedly a series of comical sketches, but truly comical was in critically short supply here. With far too few interludes of authentic humour or inventiveness, Non-Syn proved on the whole a rather dismal enterprise that made me again proud of my high threshold for pain.
The framing device for this otherwise shapeless evening is a pair of actors searching for a writer to turn out some material they can slip into and create characters. Need we say that this most creaky device has been used a great number of times, stretching all the way back to Luigi Pirandello in 1921. (Though this rendering more resembles Stoppard’s breakthrough play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.) Pirandello and Stoppard at least had the advantage of originality of thought, something author-director Lionel Chok stumbled across very rarely in this show.
Not that Chok is entirely bereft of writing talent. A number of his sketches here started out mildly promising, even packed a nice if muffled laugh or two. No, Chok’s main problem seems to be a surfeit of self-satisfaction with his own work: just when a writer needs to start working hard to turn a promising idea into a solid sketch, Chok closed things out and scooted off to the next sketch.
Sadly, the one time Chok did draw out a sketch, a dreary office scene with mixed-up identities of involving a Mr Banks and an Angelica, it proved much too long, though it couldn’t have been much more than five minutes in length.
The best sketch was a supermarket scene where a couple in an advanced stage of mutual contempt uses their shopping to express this contempt. But even this comic look at modern manners was more promising than fulfilling, slight evidence that Lionel Chok commands some comic-writing talent, though he did not care to share much of it with us.
In addition to serving up a large plate of poor sketches, Chok also sinned in directing this show himself. Most of the staging was terribly uninventive, with the characters thrown together in a straight line, with no blocking or bits of business to add some value to the weak scenes. In fact, the show had the look of having been thrown together quickly, taking the easy way out in staging most of the scenes.
Tech effects were also amateurish, from the music to the purely functional lighting effects, with intermittent long lapses between scenes thrown in to pump up the tedium.
The acting helped a little, but only a very little. Sean Yeo, who has shown elsewhere that he excels in this kind of slapstick humor, was just above adequate in most of his pieces. (Though his talent shone through in that one decent supermarket sketch.) Teo Kiat Sing was probably the most consistently successful performer here, but even she merited no more than a congratulatory nod.
Lynette Rasiah was admirable in a number of her scenes, but in a few she looked like she still hadn’t gotten the handle on what she was doing. Alan Johnson was rather bad in most of his bits (he probably has no talent for this type of comedy), but there were a few where he surprised with a spray of talent. Johnson may be one of those people who needs very strong direction, and it was obvious he could not get it here.
For its second production of the 2003 season, the Stage Club turned to a much more reliable source, the 18th century wonder wit Richard Brinsley Sheridan. For well over 300 years now, Sheridan has been acknowledged as a master of the comedy of manners; indeed, as one who helped to refine the form in its 18th century variation.
The Rivals was Sheridan’s first hit on the London stage, premiering way back in 1775. Now Sheridan’s wit is mainly expressed through dialogue, his characters distinguishable denizens from his own day, and the playful pricks of his satirical pen focused entirely on his own age and his own British society. (As opposed to say, Molière, whose characters, however broad and exaggerated, tend to be more universal.)
So how does one go about resuscitating Sheridan’s comedy in Singapore, A.D. 2003? Well, director Daniel Toyne decided to take a radical approach, moving this Rivals from holiday-laden Bath, England to a tropical resort island in our own time. Now, Sheridan’s comedy is a somewhat delicate flower, and such uprooting and radical transplants as Toyne attempts are fraught with dangers. But in this case, the director deserves hearty applause for his decision.
One reason the transplant does work to a certain extent is that Director Toyne demonstrates an admirable sympathy for Sheridan’s text and a solid feel for its underpinnings. Toyne, in fact, is on record as stressing that he had not “relocated the play to make it relevant” but that “the new location was the 2003 Asian ambivalent (deliberate Malapropism) of 1775 Bath“. Toyne then went on to stress that “although there is much talk in local artistic circles about relevance, “The Rivals" is as fresh and bright and 'relevant' as it was when it was written, and requires no updating.”
Toyne also deserves praise for this stance. But I suspect that there was another reason for his resettling the Rivals cast of characters other than the search for “a 2003 Asian ambivalent.” Could it not be that Toyne looked around at his multinational, multi-ethnic, motley talented cast and realised that a traditional staging of The Rivals would fall flat?
Better to choose a locale and time that fit his cast more comfortably. And Sheridan does travel surprisingly well, with a lot of the humour coming through in the new setting. In fact, one of the more appealing aspects of this production was in seeing how a late 18th century comedy of manners cavorts in a Club Med-like environment in our own time. (Toyne kept the language and the characters scrupulously close to the original, for which I again doff my hat to him.)
The set concept, also by Toyne, fit his vision nicely, and he even worked in a number of in-jokes. For instance, the local watering hole is called ‘The Brinsley Barnacle” and he also weaves in a bit of 20th century English poet Stevie Smith with his delicious “Diving, Not Drowning Snorkel Rentals”.
However, the clever charm of the helmsman’s device only holds up for a certain amount of time, at which point we need more: much more. Because let us face it, Sheridan is not one of the Olympian greats amongst playwrights, and his plays even when done brilliantly (and I have caught a couple of excellent Sheridans at London’s National Theatre) have grown a bit brittle with the years.
Here I roundly disagree with Toyne’s assertion that the play is “as fresh and bright and 'relevant' as it was when it was written.” Come on, how, animated can a modern audience in an advanced country get on whether it is dangerous to teach women to read or whether young people should follow their hearts in love or bend to the wills of parents and guardians on these matters. (Where not bending to their elders’ wills means the loss of inheritance, not loss of life and limb.)
Even the linguistic maulings of Mrs. Malaprop, once a wonderfully fresh and bright invention, now seem stale, due no doubt to generations of TV comics and third-rate plays that lived off Sheridan’s inspiration like fleas. Today, most of Malaprop’s maulings barely stir a chuckle. (Especially as she finds such a prolific if unintentional competitor holding forth right there in the Oval Office itself.)
Alright, no one ever claimed that doing Sheridan well was easy, and I would not want to say that this cast and crew did not work hard at their task. But to make Sheridan’s brand of comedy work, you need very polished performances - and that’s where The Stage Club crew ran into real trouble. The problem was most glaring right where it should not be - in the two central roles of Lydia Languish and Jack Absolute, assigned to a pair of performers who quite simply were not up to the task.
As Lydia, Amelia Marsh certainly fit the bill physically (still in her teens, she’s roughly the same age as the character), but she displayed precious little range or depth. This Lydia was all surface, pleasant as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere near far enough. Although Marsh possesses some obvious potential as an actress, she has a long way to go before she can handle a Lydia Languish.
David Stewart brought an imposing physical presence to the role of Jack Absolute, but he delivered the lines as if he had left his car parked right outside and was rushing to politely finish the evening before the metre ran out. Stewart was rarely believable as anything but someone who had taken on the daunting task of memorizing a long role and was determined to deliver it in one piece.
While it was clear that Stewart had put a lot of work into mastering his many complicated lines, his rote delivery drained those lines of soul of Sheridan’s wit as well as their romance. There was no joy, no lightness to his Jack, a characters who trades wonderfully in these properties. In this case, all work and no play made Jack a quite dull boy indeed.
Perhaps most significantly, there was no chemistry between the two supposed lovers. And no chemistry between Jack and Lydia means that you have a gaping hole in the heart of this romantic comedy.
The best performances turned up in the smaller roles. History records that the original opening night of The Rivals was deemed a failure, partially because the role of Sir Lucius O’Trigger was poorly played. In this Rivals, however, Sir Lucius was the strongest character, robustly laid out by Jim Hill. Also top-notch was Roy Marsh as Bob Acres; this Acres covered a lot of ground, making up for some of the weakness around him. Both Hill and Marsh blustered their way winningly through each turn of the plot, bringing much needed strength to every scene they appeared in. Sadly for this production, Sheridan did not provide enough of them.
Jeremy Samuel’s performance stood in absolute contrast to that of Stewart’s Absolute. Samuel’s Faulkland would have been quite acceptable in a radio play rendition of The Rivals: he coupled a good command of his voice with a convincing feel for the lines, but his body movements and facial gestures were at a low amateur level.
In the other key small roles, we had a mildly commendable Melanie Hirsch, Jane Grafton and Graham Stimpson. Hirsch carry her Julia Melville fairly well. Indeed, one obvious criticism here is that her Julia outshone Lydia, which is not the way this play should balance its forces.
Grafton milked Mrs. Malaprop for a fraction of what it was worth, but she still came off as quite adequate. Stimpson proved a bit stronger than Grafton, as his Sir Anthony Absolute ended up a more fully detailed character. Both this Mrs. Malaprop and Admiral Absolute would have been adequate supports to an average Rivals if there had been strong leads at the centre of the action.
The other minor roles were handled competently, fitting into the parameters set up by director Daniel Toyne. But if you can’t bring together those necessary forces at the centre of the lovely Sheridanian confusion, the question is “why do this play at all?”. With their last two shows, a creditable Top Girls and a quite strong Six Degrees of Separation, the Stage Club had proven itself very able at handling challenging contemporary plays. With this Rivals revival, they strongly suggest that they are much too short of the necessary talent to take on the demands of the classical canon.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003