Writer: Owen McCafferty
Director: Steve Marmion
Reviewer: Megan W. Minogue
Death of a Comedian is the newest play from critically acclaimed playwright Owen McCafferty, who is the current writer-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The show itself is actually a co-production between three theatres – the Lyric, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and Soho Theatre in London – and will travel to each of these venues over the coming months. McCafferty’s on-point dialogue, relatable characters and fast-moving plot ensure that it will be a crowd-favourite for such wide-ranging audiences.
The play is in many ways a stand-up comedy performance in itself. When we first encounter the Comedian, Steve Johnston, he is fretting backstage before his latest comedy routine, despite his Girlfriend’s, Maggie, supportive encouragement. We are then treated to the Comedian’s routine, one of a few throughout the play, and it is seriously funny. We understand the Comedian through his comedy, and his acerbic wit and no-holds-bar approach to politicians, breakfast television presenters, and Louis Walsh all received genuine laughs from the audience. But when the Agent approaches the Comedian with an offer he can’t resist, the comedy begins to fade, both from the Comedian’s sets and the play itself. The Comedian wants to make people laugh, but eventually loses himself trying to do so: he becomes the butts of his own jokes, turning into the ‘complete c***’ who runs marathons for poor children in countries he will never do shows in. He becomes an actor, rather than a comedian, and his quest to ‘have it all’ becomes a series of personal sacrifices.
All three actors did well in their performances. As the Agent, Shaun Dingwall was more than the typical smarmy talent scout: we see glimpses of how his own personal life has been sacrificed due to career choices, perhaps a foreshadowing of the Comedian’s own eventual path. Brian Doherty as the Comedian was likeable and on-point with his comedic timing and delivery, in addition to being able to switch between the bubbly comedian and the man going through a personal crisis. Due in part to the nature of the script, Katie McGuinness as the Girlfriend is given less weight in the play: somewhat stereotypically supportive and the natural antagonist to the Agent in the beginning, she then disappears in the second half of the play, taking a dislike to the Comedian’s work when the comedy becomes about her and their relationship.
For such a dialogue-driven play, the sets and lighting were rightly more minimalistic and stark. Simplistic but effective sets easily conveyed the various moods and locations of the play’s action, widening out as the play continued until the Comedian gets an entire stage to himself. The lighting was utilized effectively as well, with the spotlight on the Comedian further heightening his increased isolation throughout the play.
McCafferty maintains some of his distinctly Belfast humour in the script (the Agent strongly encourages the comedian to wear a poppy while on television, and the street names in the Comedian’s signature joke can be found off the Ormeau Road in south Belfast) which, in addition to the blending of dramatic performance and stand-up comedy, ultimately makes this show an entertaining, as well as thought-provoking, performance and a good night out.
Photo courtesy of The Lyric Theatre. Runs until 8th March.