‘Sitcom Stories’ reviewed

❉ A new anthology of short plays that peek behind the curtain of a handful of adored British sitcoms.

We all like a laugh, don’t we? OK, maybe not you, madam. But there’s a lot of love for comedy and an age-old fascination with those who make it. Sitcom Stories is a new anthology of short plays, launched at 3MT in Manchester, that peeks behind the curtain of a handful of adored British situation comedies in a range of different ways.

Up first is Mark Griffiths’ Fawlty Logic, directed by Ross Kelly. It shares some DNA with Griffiths’ Douglas Adams play We Apologise for the Inconvenience of last year, depicting as it does John Cleese and Connie Booth in a simulacrum of real life which has their celebrated TV creation bleeding through into it, the end result of which is a nifty mini-farce. Later in the evening, Griffiths and Kelly present Hancock’s Eight to Ten Minutes, another version of fact through the prism of fiction, with the lad himself experiencing a potential epiphany while knocked out stone cold.

Neither piece is a mere dramatisation of true events, but between the two Dear Miss Mountshaft goes further out still. Directed by Braínne Edge, it’s a monologue by Paul Magrs which depicts The Good Life‘s Margo Leadbetter (Rachel Elliot-Newton) in the immediate aftermath of a mysterious global catastrophe, as though she’d been transplanted into Threads or Day of the Triffids with only her manners and her pluck to sustain her. It’s a bold approach, presenting laughs with a sense of queasy horror on the outskirts. It’s perhaps just a shade too long and it would have made for a more natural conclusion to the evening than being second up to bat, but Elliot-Newton handles this unusual material with skill and overall it’s a highlight of the show.

Edge also directs Whatever Happened?, a skewed take on the longed-for Likely Lads reunion that never came to pass, co-written by Edge and Sean Mason. It’s another stronger entry, with Stephen Aintree as James Bolam and Lloyd Peters as Rodney Bewes, crossing paths unexpectedly in a pub in later life. It doesn’t develop much beyond a very basic premise – Bewes is fond of the old days and longs to get their show repeated whereas Bolam is ill-tempered and just wants to move on – but it’s well played by Aintree and Peters and it’s deft in its echoes of the source show.

Pete Gibson writes and stars in The Rise and Fall of the King of Crumpsall, directed by Sarah Wilkinson, a monologue as fallen It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum! star Don Estelle. Gibson’s performance is decent but the concept feels like it’s straining to be a full one-man show. In this bare-bones form it’s rather slight, lacking the substance and invention on show elsewhere.

Mason turns director for the closing piece, Ian Winterton’s No, Prime Minister, which unusually takes on a genuine event, then-PM Margaret Thatcher descending on Yes, Minister co-writer Jonathan Lynn seeking assistance with her own comedy sketch, with her notorious press secretary Bernard Ingham in tow. As such it doesn’t feature any actual Yes, Minister characters or stars. It has its moments of wit and insight but it probably highlights a hurdle each of these playlets has to face. The casts here not only have to deliver a satisfying performance in a situation where time and budget are far from no object, they also need to depict real, well-known figures so there has to be a degree of impersonation involved. That’s a big old ask, and inevitably the performances can vary in quality pretty wildly.

Thankfully, the show as a whole avoids the turgid ‘tears of a clown’ approach (“these people made the whole nation laugh, but behind closed doors they were miserable as sin”). It could do with some kind of extra cohesion, though. A framing device with a warm-up comedian character falls very flat indeed. As a procession of pieces drawing on classic sitcoms it has a commendable sense of variety, but overall doesn’t amount to more than the sum of its parts. After all, what is it that makes these particular shows and their makers so fascinating? Why tell their stories at all? Is there anything deeper that connects them? Nevertheless, all told Sitcom Stories is an entertaining evening that serves up a smorgasbord of intriguing, thought-provoking little yarns about all those beloved comedies you have been watching.

❉ Sitcom Stories played at 3MT Venue, Manchester on Fri 8th Feb 2019. A Room 5064 Production.

❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for TelevisionHe’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

Image credits: Courtesy of Room 5064 Productions.

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