Death of a Comedian

Owen McCafferty's Faustian play comments on the commercial corruption of art by focussing on one man's journey from gags to riches

Death is an occupational hazard for a comedian – it can be a nightly occurrence.

Award-winning playwright Owen McCafferty’s new play, a world premiere at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, delivers a Faustian fable around this subject, tracing one comic's journey from gags to riches – but at what price?

Brian Doherty stars as Steve Johnston, a would-be comic firebrand attempting to save the world with a growl, a Ramones t-shirt and a bit about a horse. Katie McGuinness plays the angel resting on his shoulder like celestial dandruff, his girlfriend and putative manager alternately cooing and hectoring, not afraid to twang his conscience as well as her harp. Shaun Dingwall, finally, is the fellow in the red Lycra one-piece with the pointy tail, flourishing Mephistophelean moustaches from the off – the comedian's agent, of course.

The story is a parable, almost child-like in its moral oppositions, or at the very least 'punk' in its black and white vision of the world: fast-talking showbiz types are bad, loving girlfriends who stand by you if are true to yourself are good.

Steve’s journey is beautifully illustrated by the ever-expanding back drops that stack up behind him as he performs four chronological stand-up sets. The first one: a cracked tiled wall with tainted grouting could well be that industry primer 'the toilet'.

The size of these screens increases and grows plusher as he becomes more successful, until, at the height of his powers (and his spiritual nadir), he is alone in the vast expanse of an empty stage. Tom Mills’ sound design also impresses: its insistent hums and watery dripping adding, quietly, to the sense of slow, incremental erosion.         

Dingwall makes a good Faust of his showbiz shark character, 'a devil with a smile', and while it is unapologetically one-note, it is a deep and resonant one. He incarnates a naked greed, an ungoverned appetite, devouring all before him: he is capitalism in a shiny suit. He tears up the stage; snarling, cajoling, blowing smoke in Steve’s every orifice. 

McGuinness, cast as a moral compass avowedly fixed on true north, has far less to do as Maggie. As the play continues, her role diminishes. Crushed by the steam-roller agent, her still, small voice is drowned out by audience applause and ringing cash tills.   

Doherty is excellent as Steve. He has the hang-dog demeanour, gravel voice and 'lived in' wardrobe of a touring comedian. He remains centre stage throughout the performance, living for the spotlight, and handles the stand-up routines with verve and skill.

The simple narrative structure allows for subtle colour and shading in Steve’s four stand-up sets, which are variations on a theme. It’s a brave move by McCafferty, telling the same, not particularly good joke four or five times over, but it allows the audience to witness the creeping rot, the homeopathic dilution of the Comedian's career. 

The central theatrical bit of business sees the agent physically strip our hero down to his underpants, delivering a verbal dressing down simultaneously. If it misfires slightly, that is because Steve’s replacement costume – his new incarnation as a stadium and supermarket comedy heavy-weight – lacks sufficient glamour: it just looks like another set of clothes that he might wear. I’m not suggesting a gold lame suit, but...

With the focus on the preening emptiness of Steve’s final set the play loses its way slightly. It is too easy to believe that with success comes a complete inability to do your job. 

Steve’s earlier sets – the first rough and angry, the second morally righteous and sophisticated (and sounding alarmingly similar to Dave Allen at times, which can only be a good thing!) – show that there were definite comic chops there: he could do this. The last set, however, clearly modelled on Live at the Apollo, is all mugging and grimacing. Here, Steve shows a complete lack of engagement with his audience, both the one in the theatre and the one providing the canned laughter.

The tragedy of the piece is that Steve loses something worth having, that he betrays himself for coin, his integrity fatally compromised. It feels a bit pat: whatever you think about the comedy stylings of Michael McIntyre (and I’m no fan) he does know what he’s doing. He’s a pro.     

'I don’t want to be funny. I want to be a comedian,' is the play’s pull-out quote, and therein lay the seeds of Steve Johnston’s destruction. This is a play not only about one man’s picaresque journey from hungry, political comic to vacuous light entertainment hack, it’s also about the degradation of an industry – comedy being as good a stand in for any section of the Arts – being finessed and fiddled with by the corrupting machinations of big business.

That point comes across loud and clear. What also slips out, perhaps, is the solipsism of stand-up comedy, the loneliness. There are three people on stage tonight but only one of them feels like a human being. 

Death of a Comedian runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until March 8.