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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“a potent mix of Agatha Christie and Michael Moore that thrillingly keeps you on your toes”
Minutes after watching the evening News Special featuring the Prime Minister declaring ‘Lockdown 2’, I switched off to watch the online stream theatre production of “What A Carve Up!”. The timing is perfectly apposite, not just because this production is one of the finest examples of the way theatre is having to adapt to reach audiences in the face of a pandemic, but also because the presentation, the treatment and the execution of the story is brilliantly and almost painfully relevant, forcing you to think twice (at the very least) about where we are, and how did we get here?
A co-production between the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre and New Wolsey Theatre, the show is cleverly constructed as a docudrama, based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Coe published in the early nineties. The original novel, which was hailed as one of the finest English satires at the time, focuses on the fictitious Winshaw family: a dynasty that embodies absolutely everything that is politically and socially corrupt. A family that represents the narrow, self-serving interests of those in power whose influence in (or rather control of) banking, the media, agriculture, healthcare, the arms trade and the arts (the list goes on) ultimately leads to the bloodbath in which they perish; their individual violent deaths reflecting their particular professional sins.
That is not a spoiler! It is merely the starting point. Henry Filloux-Bennett picks up on the story thirty years later with razor-sharp insight and the benefit of hindsight. One of Coe’s novel’s protagonists was Michael Owen, a writer who is the prime suspect in the murder investigation. In Filloux-Bennett’s update the focus is on his son Raymond as he questions the evidence. Alfred Enoch plays Raymond, stealing the show with a captivating portrayal of a dispossessed son, robbed of truth and justice as well as family. He narrates his story straight to camera in the style of a YouTube podcast. In tandem, director Tamara Harvey cuts to a present-day televised interview with the only surviving Winshaw family member. Tamzin Outhwaite is chillingly cool as the interviewer who, on camera, surreptitiously conveys her dislike for her subject; a stunningly honest and believable performance from Fiona Button who portrays the dewy-eyed glamour that ultimately fails to conceal a hard pragmatism inherited from her forebears. The rest of the piece is filled with the ‘who’s who’ of theatre delivering cameos, including Sir Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Sharon D Clarke, Griff Rhys Jones, Robert Bathurst, Celia Imrie, Dervla Kirwan, Catrin Aaron, Jonathan Bailey, Jamie Ballard, Samuel Barnett, Jack Dixon, Rebecca Front, Julian Harries, James McNicholas and Lizzie Muncey.
In an hour and three quarters the subject matter is in danger of being a little stretched but never does this feel over long, and the frequent use of repetition, flashback and re-takes only strengthens the narrative and the message. “What A Carve Up!” is a riveting piece of online theatre; a potent mix of Agatha Christie and Michael Moore that thrillingly keeps you on your toes. The strands are sometimes complicated but eventually weave together beautifully to reveal the whole picture. And it is frightening. Coe’s book is a political satire that in Filloux-Bennett’s hands is just as resonant as ever. If not more so. The Winshaw’s were the epitome of what went wrong back then in a time of ideological change. Whatever your persuasion, this production seems to indicate that we now live in an age of political shamelessness, cruelty and indifference that the Winshaws could only have dreamed of. The skilful impartiality of the subtext is a credit to the writing and the performances. At no point are we coerced into a way of thinking, but the audience, though in isolation across the nation, are probably moved in similar ways.
This production is unmissable. A triumph. Delightfully entertaining and just as thought provoking. Occasionally hard going, but worth hanging on to the bitter end. The closing lines, delivered by Alfred Enoch, are uncannily and deliberately timely. And indescribably heart-breaking.