Comedy is often more about the little things than the big picture. Perfecting comedic timing, for instance, means making a fraction of a second extremely important. The team behind the recent production of domestic comedy, RolePlay, are masters of those little things, and they created a very funny piece of work. But certain broad issues held back the overall quality of the piece.
The precision and care in the production is most visible in the actors’ performances. From Julie-Ann (Jen Grace)’s napkin folding song, to the way Mickey (Hamish Rea) reads a children’s book like it’s the cleverest example of literature in the language, the play was full of subtly brilliant, inspired acting. Particular recognition should go to Stephen Quinn as Justin, for whom every reaction either advanced the story or earned a laugh, though he fell into an old habit of occasionally speaking too fast to be understood. And characterisation was strong across the board. Performances were grounded and real where they needed to be, and over-the-top wacky when entertaining. The most complete performance, though, was Hannah Ritchie’s Paige. Ritchie took a bizarre, edgy character and grounded it with truth. Her dramatic portrayal had depth and range, and though she rarely delivered comically herself, she allowed the characters around her to shine by providing comic contrast.
From the production standpoint, little things continued to stand out. The staging was surprisingly intricate for a Barron show, and looked like a real living room, with all the required accoutrement. This is notable, as the play isn’t meant to be staged that way. The script calls for a kitchen attached to the living room, and it took inventive design to move the play onto that little stage. Costume was universally effective, helping to create disparate, individual characters. But though tech was well-managed, I question the decision to add anti-realist lighting to what is otherwise a realistic play (from a production standpoint). A Lion King homage helped by a sudden lighting change wasn’t funny enough to justify the break in immersion, and could have been cut.
There were two very general problems. One is a question of pace. Comedy generally wants to run quickly. The Importance of Being Earnest is the prime example: a play that works because the jokes follow each other with alacrity. RolePlay lacked that. While the jokes were really good, there were a number of sections where the comedy lagged, the pace slowed, and the quality dropped. Part of that is the responsibility of the actors, who needed to be quicker on delivery, except in those very specific moments when the slowness itself is a punch line. But the other part of that is in the writing.
RolePlay as a script has a lot of issues. It’s a comedy that tries too hard to be a drama, and so both sides suffer. The comedic scenes get separated by whole dialogues of exposition and character development, but not enough time is spent on that serious plot to make me care about the fate of the characters. And having to spread time between character drama and wacky antics means that some of the story happens rather suddenly. The script, despite its Olivier Award nomination, isn’t fantastic, and that became an issue.
RolePlay was a honed, crafted production. But for all the time they spent polishing and cleaning, it still had some basic issues. And those few issues became a large thorn in the side of what was still very much a play worth watching.