A THREE-VIEW REVIEW of DEATH OF A COMEDIAN by Owen McCafferty
When I say this play was ambiguous, I mean it as both a compliment and a description. Is it tragic or comic? Was this really a play or stand-up with behind the scenes glimpses? The ambiguity was reflected in the seats as patrons were unsure if they should applaud at the end of one of Steve Johnston’s (actor Brian Doherty’s) routines or wait for the next part of the scene. In my brief chat with the main man, he confirmed my view that the play works somewhat in reverse in that the strong opening comedy gets progressively stripped away (as do the actor’s clothes at one point) and falls finally into a false fame leaving the audience intentionally flat.
Belfast-born playwright Owen McCafferty, Artist in Residence at The Lyric Theatre, presents us with questioning that reaches deeper than the cost of compromise in comedy to provoke thoughts of how we all modify our behaviours, integrity and relationships to pursue half-defined dreams and mixed motives. Shaun Dingwall, who played the slick, sharp talking super-agent, sent some scathing spears at the audience, suggesting we are largely inconsequential when it comes to the work of the comedian/performer. When asked after the show if he himself shared these views, his laughter did not betray his opinion.
The relationship between Steve Johnston and his girlfriend (played by Katie McGuinness) did not quite convey the emotions called for; notwithstanding this point, all three actors put forward solid performances on this opening night and this play should only strengthen with time.
“Death of a Comedian” had been a discussion point for myself and a few other local comedians since it was announced. We were eager to see how a play would tackle the theme of a comedian trading their artistic integrity for fame. As it turns out, there’s not much more to the play than that. If I was to tell you that the central character is a comedian full of self-doubt who gets an agent, changes his act for a broader audience and loses the respect of his girlfriend in the process, then I’ve really told you all you really need to know. There isn’t much more to it than that.
The characters (the comedian, his girlfriend and his agent) are completely one-dimensional. We never really find out much about them other than what’s on the surface. Although we get a few stand-up routines from the comedian (whose name is Stephen Johnston – the first thing the agent should have changed) we never find out anything else about him, apart from the fact he has a girlfriend and says he wants to make people laugh. The stand-up routines we hear from him at the start are supposed to be edgy with him trying to say something profound about the world, but in reality there’s no substance to it; calling politicians “c*nts” isn’t original or interesting, it’s just lazy.
As the play goes on, his new found agent makes suggestions as to how he should change his act to make it more palatable to a wider audience and we see this played out in a series of short routines where the content changes each time. It’s not very subtlety done, he just takes out the swearing. In fact there’s very little difference between his original material and the TV friendly stuff he eventually finishes with, bar the cursing. And the heavy handedness doesn’t end there. In another scene, his agent (who is very obviously based on the late Addison Cresswell, comedy agent from Off The Kerb) undresses the comedian down to his underwear and then leaves a suit and shoes for him to change into. It’s quite a blunt and clumsy metaphor for the character’s transformation into a generic TV comedian, followed by his arrival on stage to a huge backdrop, thumping music and fireworks much like ‘Live at the Apollo’.
Given that the actors aren’t given much to work with, the performances aren’t bad, particularly Shaun Dingwall who plays the agent. Perhaps from a non-comedian’s point of view, the play might be an insight into how artists have to compromise for mainstream success these days, but from someone inside that world, it’s just quite insubstantial, predictable and a bit ham-fisted.
I’ve been doing comedy on and off for 5 years and throughout the time I’ve tried to
understand what it means to build my own comedic craft and to develop a performing presence, persona and voice. The yearning for acceptance and affirmation may be the motivation to perform, especially in something as soul-exposing as comedy. I wanted to see this play’s portrayal especially of the amateur comedian’s transformation.
In comedy, there will always be a virtue in the experience of working hard at liveperformance and developing your own comedic voice. Then there is the pursuit of success and the struggle between individual integrity and mainstream commercialism that forms the narrative of this play.
Death of a Comedian portrays the transformation of amateur stand-up Stephen Johnston from earnest if overly needy novice to polished, lucrative but generic stadium filling hack, complete with burgundy blazer. From the beginning, his girlfriend Maggie is there not only to encourage Stephen but also to temper his ego and give feedback. In one early scene. Maggie’s presence in the play maintains this positive influence on the comedian, and in the moments when she is absent you feel that Stephen does and should miss her.
The romantic element of Stephen and Maggie’s relationship is never really developed, but that doesn’t matter. It’s Maggie’s importance as the grounding, honest friend in Stephen’s life that lends to the drama of the play. The augmenting of his set around Maggie’s feedback is a charming and honest portrayal of how comedians operate, especially at the amateur level when egos are especially fragile and any comment is absorbed hungrily.
Enter The Agent – a Faustian archetype full of promise, gilded futures, and bright lights baby! His odious entrance after one of Stephen’s gigs in a small venue is perfectly complemented by the actor’s lithe and smooth movement. The character instantly oozes wealth and commercialism. With his guidance, Stephen can reach the top. Inevitably, the Agent clashes with Maggie. He sees comedy as a commodity and presents Stephen’s worth in a capacity as a unit shifter, someone who can ‘produce the goods”‘. Not including the stand-up elements of the show, The Agent certainly has the lion’s share of good scripting.
I watched the first half of this play recognising myself in the insecure, self-admonishing comic who even after a good performance couldn’t take a compliment; someone who can’t recognise support when it’s right in front of him. I watched the second half recognising almost every comedian who appears on ‘Live at the Apollo’ and all of those varnished, vanilla shows of that ilk.
I say go watch this play, especially if you want to be a comedian. And I also say let it fire you up and motivate you to work towards being a good performer of comedy, on your terms and in your own voice.