Without A Punchline: Reviewed

One of the greatest hits of On The Rocks last year, Rory MacKenzie brought Without A Punchline back to our union this freshers' week to much acclaim once again. With the same cast and crew, this was a display of talent to entice newcomers into the mysterious world of student theatre and served as the perfect way to round off MerDay. Read what we thought here… 

Rory MacKenzie’s Without A Punchline, is the story of Norman Sullen (Olly Lennard), a struggling comedian going through what could be described by any audience member as a bit of a breakdown. This is after discovering that his difficulties in bed mean he is unable to have biological children.

The play starts as it means to go on, with some terrible one-liners. When I say terrible, I mean in the sense that they are the kind of jokes your ageing dad or uncle would make in an effort to embarrass you. That is not to say that they didn’t have the audience chuckling within minutes.

Norman and his wife, Mary (Emma Taylor), then guide us through comedic ups and dramatic downs, leading to their revelation and its consequences for the couple. The first of these dips into the grit of the play feels a little uncertain after such light comedy, hitting the floor with a bit of a thump. But as it goes on, these transitions get smoother, and better at taking the audience with them. However, at times, the play still struggles to decide whether it is a serious drama interspersed with comedy, or a comedy with an undercurrent of serious drama.

Norman himself is a sympathetic character brought to life by humour and Lennard’s convincing performance. He is caught between his own (self-confessed) pretensions of artistic integrity and desire for commercial success. In his own words, he’s expected to be “James Dean, with an ironic T-shirt… preferably popping a cap in someone’s ass” to be “hip and edgy”. And as a self-deprecating mess he’s pretty far away from this image. Emma Taylor as Norman’s wife, Mary, possesses perhaps as much talent, simply with fewer opportunities to display it, but nevertheless is impressive.

Cameron Kirby and Lee Poe should be praised as stage manager and producer, along with director, Rory and lighting and set teams for a good use of the space (Venue 2 is less than ideal) and lighting in Norman’s imaginary comedy routine.

Just when the play had really found its flow, the rollercoaster of tone lost its rhythm. Norman embarks on an epic rant about comedian pastiches – funny in light of his earlier jokes and the genuine quality of his own imagined routine. And I feel Lennard really does his best with this, but it gets too much and by its end I no longer cared. I appreciate the dramatic effect, but can’t help feel that MacKenzie got carried away here.

The left-over venom was all poured into the Mother-in-law figure. Unfortunately this shattered the illusion of reality that had been carefully built up between husband and wife, Norman and Mary. Luckily, Taylor lifts it up again at the end to rescue it from the jaws of over dramatic drama.  I fear I too may have got carried away. The whole play can perhaps be summed up by one scene:  Mary and Norman engage in marital activity (let’s leave it at that) with sound effects offstage. It makes you slightly uncomfortable, but importantly also makes you laugh. But just like Norman, it leaves you feeling… not entirely satisfied.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening and I was impressed. And if I’ve been too harsh, "I’m just a hack with no real power”. Nuff said. Congratulations to all involved.


Images courtesy of Mermaid's production of Without a Punchline and Ben Anderson.