Writer and Director: Richard Canal
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Clowns in popular culture are rarely humorous and whether they’re the murderous subjects of Stephen King novels or child-hating alcoholics in black comedies like Psychoville, the clown is a rich subject for drama. Despite their association with slapstick humour, combining the need to make people laugh with an inner sadness makes them both ridiculous and sinister figures. Richard Canal’s one-clown show Cry, Blueberry, running at the Cockpit Theatre, tells an equally tragic tale of grief and depression.
Blueberry the clown – otherwise known as Isaac Lowe – has just given his last performance at the Palace Theatre, Broadway. It’s 1932 and New York is recovering from deep depression, while the delights of vaudeville have given way to the new wave of talking pictures. As Blueberry removes his make-up for the last time, he tells the audience the story of his life as a young man growing up in the Southern states, his love of the circus and need to escape. Haunted by the past, Blueberry cannot outrun his past anymore.
Canal’s show, which premiered at the Camden Fringe last year, is full of potential that with a little reshaping could develop into a meaningful piece of theatre. There are lots of good ideas in here and in the central character, Canal has created a multi-layered protagonist who lives at a time of considerable change for America, a political, financial and cultural watershed between a traditional past and supposedly bright new future.
Some of the show’s highlights are in demonstrating the contrast between Isaac’s old-fashioned upbringing and the excitement of prohibition in 1920s New York, how a change of identity took him beyond the emotional and societal limitations of his youth to a place of greater understanding and acceptance as the clown Blueberry. And the various intermingled timelines are a useful structure for the audience to observe Blueberry physically and metaphorically removing his public masks.
Yet, the show’s biggest problem is creating investment in its central character, and right at the top of the night it moves too quickly from the backstage area to memories of the past. This is all too rapid, the audience hasn’t decided that they care about Isaac yet, and a little more time could be given to creating a fuller context for his life in the present day, and what this final show means in the life of a man who’s always been a clown – a theme that could be strongly woven through the entire play.
Canal should also think more carefully about the show’s content and referenced characters because too often events and individuals are rushed over without adding much to the overall purpose of the show. We skip hurriedly past a difficult father, a collection of local bigots and a succession of women, the most significant of which is introduced, proposed to and disposed of within the space of 5 minutes. Even the best friend who becomes so significant to the plot feels like an archetype rather than a real man. While some locations seem vibrant and alive, most are just wordy descriptions with no tangible existence, something they need if the audience is going to believe in them and ultimately care about Blueberry.
It’s no easy task to devise and deliver a 75-minute monologue alone, and Canal’s show is a brave attempt to create something rather ambitious. That said, it is a little over-earnest and the therapy-based language is often quite elaborate, redolent of the South perhaps, but it does distance the audience, while the sliding intonation the accent requires is rather unvarying. Most surprisingly this philosophising clown offers almost no laughs at all which seems like a wasted opportunity to use the persona to explore the border between humour and sadness.
Cry, Blueberry is a good start but needs a slightly clearer steer in terms of characterisation and purpose. Slightly fewer anecdotes and more sense of direction would help the audience understand the shows key messages, while Canal could better use the character of the clown to balance ideas of darkness and identity with the need to escape and entertain.
Runs until: 19 January 2018 | Image: Contributed