Little Jokes

Chatterbox Productions enter the weird world of Victorian renaissance man Edward Lear at The MAC

'I see life as basically tragic and futile and the only thing that matters is making little jokes,' says 'funny little man' Edward Lear, lending Seamus Collins’ play its title and me a sentiment that I can definitely get behind.

A long time fan of Lear’s, the 19th century English renaissance man (I once owned a cat named Slingsby), I am anxious to like this new play from Chatterbox Productions, presented as part of the Pick N Mix Festival at The MAC in Belfast. And I do like it, but equally it confuses me no end.

The plot pivots on a Freaky Friday mechanism: Anthony, a bright but lonely little boy, who is bullied at school and cannot acclimatise to living with his sister in his parent’s absence, finds that by using his powerful imagination he can transport himself to Edward Lear’s Nonsense Land.

Lear is entranced by stories of Anthony’s life in the future, about his parent’s jobs as astronauts and about the education he might be privy to. They agree to swap lives and for a while they are very happy: Anthony has a birthday party 50 times – soundtracked by The Smith’s 'Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want' – and Lear attends school as Anthony.

But pretty soon the excitement palls and they wish to return to the lives they knew. Lear is indeed a funny little man. 'You have to learn to use your imagination more betterly,' is his strangely-worded advice to poor Anthony. But Lear recognises Anthony’s imaginative power and, almost at once, we hear the Victorian clockwork mechanicals whirring away behind his timid exterior.

'All the best people are made up' is one of Lear’s aphorisms, but does not apply here as Chris McCurry’s Lear is by far the most memorable, rounded, conflicted and amusing character (albeit in fictionalised form). Lear, far from being a cuddly uncle, is depicted as being a nervous, intense man, crushed by depression and haunted by notions of inadequacy, both societal and interpersonal.

He is a self-serving tempter and a man to be pitied, carrying around a suitcase full of memories he can never open, as they are too painful to relive but too precious to throw away. He’s a daringly unreliable central figure in what seems to be, in every other sense, a play pitched at children, though there are none here at all for today’s packed matinee.

The cast acquit themselves excellently throughout. McCurry is kind and troubled as Lear, banking down a Willy Wonka-ish fire beneath his meek demeanour; Cathan McRoberts carries the show as lynchpin Anthony, a difficult task; Hannah Coyle is excellent in a variety of roles, energetic and selfless and genuinely affecting as Anthony’s confused older sister.

There is lots of ninny-shuffling and face pulling, and a distinct tang of issues-based theatre about the show. But giving the role of a child to a grown man is always going to be a risk, and it's testament to McRobert’s immersive approach to the role of Anthony that I completely believe him by the end of the show.

Every facet of Little Jokes is effective. Lear’s poems are stitched invisibly into the text and accompanied by Eloisa Gatto’s live accordion, and with the charcoal smear of the shadow play projected onto the bed-sheets, I am irresistibly reminded of The Tiger Lillies’ accompaniment to a production of Shockheaded Peter that I saw 15 years ago.

This is not of that scale, of course, but in terms of imaginative staging, ambition and joined up thinking this show really excels. The cast get an awful lot of business out of a washing line and three bed sheets. They are variously a cinema screen, a boat, the sea and endless permutations on head gear. It stands, in fact, for everything except for The Dong’s nose and Lear’s suitcase.

The problem I have is really wondering who this play is for: it’s a play about an orphaned child and a manic depressive. The pacing is pretty frantic, the playing energetic and the majority of the cast portray children. But there is a dark heart of grief, betrayal, inadequacy and unease at the centre of the piece.

I expect it’s for children of all ages, eight to 80. But why were there none here today? Then again, nobody else laughs at the repetition of 'The dong, the dong, the dong' except me. Clearly there is at least one child in the audience this afternoon.

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