“You didn’t tell the audience your name! Always tell the audience your name!” beams the fast taking agent to our comedian, after viewing his performance on a small stage at the dingier end of the comedy circuit. As we witness the rise to fame and associated transformation of the comedian, brilliantly played by Brian Doherty, we see, at the finish, his name may be all that is left of him.
Award winning writer Owen McCaffery is the Lyric Theatre’s current playwright-in-residence and his play Death of a Comedian, directed by Steve Marmion demonstrates the psychological uphill slog of hitting the big time. The play focuses centrally on the main character – comedian Steve Johnston, and his inner struggle regarding his comedic material and his own integrity. The play opens with Steve, cursing himself in the toilets of what we imagine to be a small pub venue and we see that he is filled with self-doubt about his abilities as a performer. Enter his ever present and loyal girlfriend played by Katie McGuinness, to reassure him that he is indeed “funny”. He goes on to deliver a sharp, adequate piece of stand-up with scathing commentary on poverty, politicians and the establishment. The slick and successful agent, played by Shaun Dingwall offers his critique, citing changes to elevate the routine to appeal to the masses. The girlfriend serves to amplify the feelings of the audience in the piece and is distrustful of the agent and all his glittery promises.
Under the control of the agent our comedian falls. The venues and audiences get larger. A TV appearance beckons. The acerbic commentary on society is watered down and a less risky humour enters as the routine morphs with every gig. No longer proud, the girlfriend disappears from his side and a styled and altered Steve Johnston wonders who he has become for the sake of fame and fortune.
Backdrops, lighting and sound are all used cleverly to ensure that before our eyes, the stages really do get bigger with every gig. Credit must be given to the Set Designer – Michael Vale, Lighting Designer Ben Ormerod and Sound Designer Tom Mills for executing this feat so effectively.
McCafferty’s Death of a Comedian sees the manipulation of one man for the pursuit of success and may as well ask the question ‘Do you have to become a sell-out to be sold out?’ Jude Malone, GiggingNI.com