Vivien Leigh once famously said that comedy is much more difficult than tragedy – as it’s much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh. Perhaps that is the reason why straightforward comedy, without an Important Societal Message to carry or some other kind of serious undertone to redeem it in the eye of an equally serious audience, has become somewhat of an endangered species in theatres these days. With The Flop, Hijinx Theatre Company embark in an attempt to tackle exactly that most difficult of materials, straightforward, unrepentant comedy – an attempt that is largely successful, judging by the fact that the whole sold-out Seligman Theatre did indeed laugh, pretty much non-stop from the beginning to the end of the performance.
It is a lighthearted, brisk-paced piece that lasts just about an hour, incorporating multiple costume changes, a minimal but cleverly multi-purpose scenery, a set of over-the-top characters from a wildly anachronistic seventeenth-century France, and a central plotline that is as embarrassing as it is hilarious. Its panto influences can be seen in the musical interludes and the cleverly executed moments of audience participation, but it has perhaps a nobler ancestor in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd: several scenes would have encountered the heartfelt approval of Eugene Ionesco (one thinks, for instance, of a giant hedgehog). The writing commits totally to absurdist thinking, and that is its greatest strength: by embracing the nonsensical nature of its subject to its inevitable extremes, it manages to deliver some memorable exchanges that are comedy at its best. While the programme itself presents the piece as mainly physical comedy, and that is certainly an important element, aided by a carefully cured stage presence on the part of the whole cast, it is perhaps this commitment to the nonsense in the script that truly gives The Flop the ability to become an impressive piece of comedy, beyond the simple enjoyment of the moment.
The play lasts just about an hour, which is exactly the time it needs. It has a fast, relentless pace that, far from being a disadvantage, becomes one of its strengths, greatly aiding the comedic tempo and keeping the audience on its toes as something unexpected is almost constantly happening. Fast-paced exchanges between characters are indeed one of the best things about it; one must praise the ability of the cast to go with the flow and keep up a high standard of performance even at such a punishing pace. Having just one or two glitches, and those expertly manages, in a play that literally never stops, requiring a great number of costume changes, stage exits and re-entrances, and great precision of delivery, is indeed an impressive result. Particularly noteworthy were the performances of Hannah McPake (a complete tour de force), Ted Lishman (perfectly deadpan when needed), and Iain Gibbons as the male lead. Not last, worthy of mention was also the BSL interpretation provided by Sami Thorpe – who would really deserve to be listed with the main cast, as her performance was a feat of acting to rival that of the other performers.
Hijinx Theatre Company presents itself as “making theatre performed by professional actors – some of whom have a learning disability”. There is great truth to the statement, and the company should be looked at as a near-perfect example of what inclusiveness in theatre looks like at its best. The respect given to the performers and their – indeed remarkable – acting skills demonstrates what a good product can be obtained when actors are regarded first and foremost as actors, regardless of their background. Far from performing compassion, the play is absolutely ruthless and in this ruthlesness it finds its greatest comedic strength. It is this attention to performers and their professional skills that we should see brought to the forefront whenever we discuss inclusive theatre – to remove the toxic commonplace idea that such skills are the exclusive fiefdom of a very small group of stereotypical-looking people.
The Flop is a thoroughly enjoyable, lighthearted performance that will pull some laughter out of the most serious of audiences, and worth watching both for its comedic finesse and for the ideas it brings to the discussion on how we think of and experience theatre.
Michael Kelligan reviews The Flop : The Flop, Hijinx/Spymonkey
Chiara Strazzulla is a New Voices reviewer supported by Wales Critics Fund