FEELING AFRAID AS IF SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS GOING TO HAPPEN at Edinburgh Festival Fringe
“exciting, original and very funny”
Samuel Barnett plays a stand-up comedian in his Edinburgh debut performance of Marcelo Dos Santos’s new play. He’s thirty-six, which he reassures us is fine in a tone of voice which suggests it’s maybe not. He’s incredibly neurotic, hopelessly single, spending his days scrolling through headless torsos on Grindr and working on his stand-up routines. Every so often we’re treated to a new gag, which range from jokes about Wetherspoons to feeling like you’re going to die if there’s blood in your cum to having the urge to crush a kitten to death with your bare hands. I think Barnett proves that any joke can be funny if the delivery is done right. At one point he even deconstructs the delivery of a perfect joke: the rule of three, alliteration, words which suddenly become funny when juxtaposed with something unexpected. I’m a bit of a nerd for writing theory so loved this bit. As the play plays with form itself, in a stand-up routine which becomes theatre (or vice-versa), it’s very interested in the masking of one form with the other, just as the character masks his underlying anxieties with his jokes.
But when he meets a new man known only as the ‘American’, his jokes just aren’t going to cut it. The American has an uncommon medical conditions where laughing could literally kill him. So he can’t laugh at any of his jokes, even though he reassures him he really does find them funny. Barnett’s character – who doesn’t seem to be given a name – ends up jeopardising the relationship, the first proper relationship of his thirty-six years, and the story ends on a brilliant punchline, which we realise it’s been working towards from quite early on. It’s great.
Barnett’s timing, of both the comedy and the desperation, is impeccable. He’s on full speed from the moment the lights go up and it feels like he hardly stops from breath. And then the moments he does, the moments when he drops the mic and lets us really hear him, we cling on to, hoping we might find some truths, hoping we might be trusted enough to let him be vulnerable for a moment. Matthew Xia’s direction astutely sets the pace of Santos’s text, and works brilliantly to ensure Barnett connects with each and every person in the audience as he whizzes around the stage. It very much feels like we’re at a comedy gig in the way Barnett forms his rapport with us. He rolls his eyes and we feel like rolling ours with him. Each expression and tiny gesture is carefully timed and delivered. We’re totally there with him and his frustrations at the American for not getting slapstick, and other British cultural references. The whole performance is totally captivating.
At the heart of the story, of the jokes, is a comedian, a man in his mid-thirties, living in London and feeling incredibly lonely. And when someone sees this for what it is, he struggles to decide whether or not he can let himself open up. We don’t really find out what happens in the end, but the final gag we’re left with suggests there probably is quite a bit of hope for this character. It’s an exciting, original and very funny new play, with a magnificent, five-star performance from Barnett at the helm.
Reviewed 12th August 2022
by Joseph Winer
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“Michele Lee has created great characters and a compelling story”
Rice is Michele Lee’s enterprising two hander about women of colour trapped in the heirarchical (and blinkered) world of male dominated business in Australia. It has just opened at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. It’s a co-production between the Orange Tree and the Actors Touring Company, directed by Matthew Xia. Despite the best efforts of all concerned, Rice is a play with a brilliant premise that doesn’t quite meet its promise.
Lee, who is Hmong-Australian, wanted to create a play that gave two actresses of colour a chance to play multiple roles—roles of “versatility and virtuosity and range.” In creating Nisha, (played by Zainab Hasan) an ambitious young executive hoping to rise in the Golden Fields rice company of Melbourne, and pitting her against the older Yvette (Sarah Lam), a cleaner of Chinese ancestry at the same company, Lee creates a situation fraught with cross cultural tensions both within and without these women’s lives. Hasan does not only play Nisha, an Australian of West Bengali ancestry, but shifts into a variety of roles, including Sheree, Yvette’s troubled daughter, and the white (and very privileged) son of David Egan—a man who is threatening her daughter with a prison sentence. Lam takes on an equally dazzling range of roles, including Tom Budd, an executive at Nisha’s company with whom Nisha has a brief and ill-judged affair; Graeme Hartley, a management “guru”, and Gretel Patel—who brings Nisha’s dreams of advancement to a crashing fall during a disastrous business trip to India.
The story of Rice is quite simple: Nisha and Yvette meet in Nisha’s office where she has been working long hours. Nisha is unhappy with Yvette’s refusal to clean her workspace to her liking. Yvette has very definite ideas about what she should be cleaning. But this clash between powerful personalities is about to become irrelevant in company politics—the Golden Fields company has just hired a management “guru” who is slashing and burning every budget he can find. Thrown together in mutual misery in a series of after business hours encounters, the women become friends. They bond over food, naturally—both Yvette’s home cooked Chinese dishes, and Nisha’s concern over her happy go lucky boyfriend’s food truck and his “khaki rolls.”
Two actresses, no matter how experienced or talented—as Lam and Hasan are—cannot quite pull off the range of roles in Rice, although dialect coach Catherine Weate has done sterling work with all the accents. It’s hard for the audience to keep track of all the characters that cross this bright, white stage in ninety five minutes of playing time. It’s to Lee’s credit that she has created such interesting and varied roles—it would be great to see a cast playing each role with a single actor. Similarly, the change of scenes in Rice would benefit from changes of scenery. Changing the lighting (again, even in the talented hands of Bethany Gupwell, the lighting designer) doesn’t quite do it.
A play with such a varied cast and complex settings (the scenes shift from Melbourne, Australia to Delhi, India) is a lot to pull off successfully in a small theatre in the round. The intimacy of the Orange Tree stage should work well in a two hander, but in this case, the set design is unnecessarily cluttered with a desk. This makes playing in the round quite tricky—every time someone sits down at that desk, the space is transformed from four into three sides, and the audience seated on the fourth side behind the desk have to grapple with the backs (or, at best, the profiles) of the performers. This happens too often not to be an unwelcome distraction. But the overwhelming feeling that remains after the conclusion of this production of Rice—is that this might not be a piece for the theatre. Perhaps the story would show to best advantage as an Australian indie film—the kind that has made Australian film making famous.
In Rice, Michele Lee has created great characters and a compelling story. But it needs the right environment to show to best advantage. Put together a bigger cast in the right medium—and this could be a classic.