Published in The Irish World Newspaper 06/05/2015
It is commonly assumed that the test of a comedian is in his skill for comedic timing. Belfast born Owen McCafferty’s play Death of a Comedian, challenges this assumption and focuses more on the moral importance of their content rather than their style of delivery.
The play centres around a struggling Irish comedian called Steve Johnston, who is repeatedly questioning his ability when the stage first lights up- “What if I’m not funny? What if I’m just not funny?”
His girlfriend Maggie, whose job it is to reassure and guide him in his chosen career, tries to keep him calm before he’s called on stage to perform. McCafferty immediately opens us up to the fragility of the performer and the contrasting character of confident comedian we are so often used to seeing on stage.
The role of self- conscious comedian is played brilliantly by Brian Doherty, who has the range to stretch easily between boisterous performer and self-doubting fool.
Steven Johnston’s troubles begin when an obnoxious and fast talking agent, named Doug Wright, enters his life and feeds his ego with a vernacular of showbiz lingo and ambiguous promises of fame.
McCafferty’s honestly written play shows us how a mix of self-doubt and hunger for fame can be a lethal concoction as it creates vulnerability in the performer and leads them to a tormented battle between their own success and morality.
Gradually we begin to see Johnston change as a performer and morph into a different type of comedian from that with which we were first presented. His material is heavily affected, his set is safe and unimaginative and his accent becomes more anglicised.
Johnston’s original material focused more on social and political views as he monologued about corrupt politicians and the insincerity of television hosts. This honesty in performance is diluted later in the show by both Johnston’s own vulnerability and his agent’s dismissal of the importance of identity and individualism in performance- “A good comic can make anything funny.”
The message this play has to make is clear and requires no unpicking on the part of the audience, so its 80 minute duration seemed perfectly fitting.
Although the repetition of certain jokes might test some people’s patience, essentially, Death of a Comedian is a play that will get you thinking. The mixture of McCafferty’s honest script, Steve Marmion’s punchy direction and a well-chosen cast makes for a refreshingly humane piece of theatre.Overall it is a cynical yet justifiably critical portrayal of fame and those who offer it.
Death of a Comedian, which is presented in association with Lyric Belfast and The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, plays at the Soho Theatre in London until Saturday 16th May.