Harry Taylor

‘Corpsing’ (laughing on stage) is one of an actor’s worst fears. It can break up the scene and take away from its dramatic and emotional impact; particularly in student theatre, it reminds the audience that they are watching student actors playing parts, rather than the characters themselves living out the scenes. But if you can carry it off, staying in character and making the laughter something charming rather than scandalous, then I think corpsing can have a value of its own. When Tom Nunan (Dirk Gently), Stanley Thomas (Richard MacDuff) and Eleanor Lind Booton (Reg) broke down into giggles in one of the last scenes of this week’s ADC Mainshow ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’, their laughter actually proved just how funny they are, and just how much fun they are having.

 "These actors don’t perform like individuals, but as a cast working together to sustain this three-hour absurdity"

It would be completely wrong to begin a review of this show in any way other than with praise of Nunan. There is a sharpness to his comedy: every movement is deliberate and to-the-point, creating the impression that the whole show is, for him, some complexly choreographed dance. His comic timing is exactly on the beat, making use of the full range of a comedian’s tools – pause, facial expression, body language – and I can’t stop thinking about his different coloured suits. In what is such an intensely absurd play, Nunan manages to resist the urge to over-act or overplay the comedy, and instead what he delivers is a controlled, tight and hilarious performance as the infamous detective Dirk Gently. Such energy and precision must be exhausting, but Nunan takes it in his stride.

There seem to be two levels of comedy in this play: the comedy the individual line, and the comedy of the whole plot. The balance is a difficult one to strike, and I felt at times that the drive of the scene was lost in pursuit of puns and punchlines within it: a couple of the scenes seemed to lose their momentum as a result, and what could have been a hilarious line, if the audience had been drawn into the ridiculousness of the scene’s humour, fell a little flat at the end of the scene. This was not often, however. On the whole I was impressed by the delicate attention to detail, even in moments which would not become apparently funny until later in the play. (And certainly, if the audience is to really enjoy this play, they need to exercise some patience, some faith in the system that will bring a full understanding in the final scenes.)

That is to say, these actors don’t perform like individuals, but as a cast working together to sustain this three-hour absurdity. I got the impression that they were aiming at something quite different to a good review about their own personal comic timing or slickness of movement; this play deconstructs the dramatic and the theatrical, and it is this that the actors tap into throughout. At the beginning Nunan appears at the top of a set of stairs, addressing the audience from above and in the lofty words of Coleridge; while it all feels strange, I think it is his height that feels particularly unusual for the opening of a play which strives to set up intimacy between narrator (in this case, Dirk Gently) and audience. The fourth wall is broken after the interval when a ‘previously on’ clip (professionally executed, I should add, with beautifully clear sounds and transitions) plays; an earlier scene becomes meta-theatrical when Thomas (as MacDuff) breaks out into song and the other characters dance in wonderfully-choreographed semi-chaos behind him.

And yet this play, as some of the first lines of Nunan’s opening speech suggest, centres around Gently’s idea that nothing is coincidence: his belief is in the ‘interconnectedness of all things’. The play explains away MacDuff’s seemingly spontaneous dance as hypnotic conditioning, and indeed throughout ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’ there is a sense that mystery is pushed aside and reason is victorious. Everything is connected, and therefore everything has a distinct rational explanation. And when this explanation is brought to our attention, and we realise that we would be foolish to go along with the absurdity and accept as normal that MacDuff could burst into song in the middle of a scene, we find that we are laughing at ourselves. The absurd is reiterated and reiterated, only for the veil to be whisked away again at the point when we have just fallen in tune with it.

"In the end, I think, enjoying this play is about perspective"

Particular praise should go to the show’s set. Firstly, it spins. Not only is this impressive mechanically (I would argue the most exciting set I have ever seen at the ADC) but in the context of this ridiculous play, it provides so much scope for acceleration and unbalancing which fits with the precariousness of the play and is guaranteed to draw a laugh from the audience. The rotating circle is split into thirds (although it can be stopped in more than three positions, so that each scene is not necessarily in a single room), and what struck me is just how different each room is. Set designers Tim Otto and Zak Karimjee have managed the space with skill, and thejr attention to detail is exquisite while not being too picky, giving a sense of each room and the person who lives there, while not filling the stage with gratuitous ornamental objects.


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In the end, I think, enjoying this play is about perspective. Sure, the script is wonderfully-crafted, as every insignificant detail comes back later to play an important part, and some lines leave you thinking for minutes afterwards, and the energy and slickness of Nunan is bound to endear and engage you. But this is also a highly ridiculous play, so ridiculous that the actors themselves can sometimes barely contain their laughter, and it relies on the audience suspending their inhibitions and laughing at the pure absurdity of it. We have to engage with the intellectualism of Coleridge and the motion of time and the problem of a sofa wedged in a staircase, but we also have to let ourselves laugh at a horse reading a magazine in a bathroom. It’s a performance of juxtaposition which needs us to be grinningly open-minded: and I think that’s a pretty good exercise for Week 5.

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