If getting on with other people (or an android) is one of the most difficult things in life, then one of its pre-conditions is being able to communicate with others. This latter ability, or invariably its absence, lies at the heart of much staged comedy and farce, and up it pops again as the thread running through in Paul Ekert's four short plays for a trio of actors forming his Outbursts!, previewed in Watlington on Saturday and now bound for the 12th Camden Fringe Festival in N. London; all 22 venues, 275 events and 948 performances of it.
"How may I facilitate your grief?" asks Liz Mente-Bishop's matter-of-fact undertaker Ms Blueberry down the phone to a weeping customer, wholly at ease in her routine of euphemism, until the arrival at the door of her funeral parlour of Mr Smith (Danny Steele), an unsatisfactory customer in that he declines to accept his dead status. The opposition of this shocked and demanding dead-man-walking with the undertaker's tried and tested procedures forms the farcical basis of this first playlet. Calm until provoked, then indignant to the point of mild hysteria ("I thought I might as well earn a living out of all these interruptions!"), the zany script of Being Dead follows these two opposed forces struggling to find a meeting of minds.
In Being Alive, Nigel gets home from work, fairly frazzled, to find the parcel carriers have got there before him with a box on the doorstep containing Ms Mente-Bishop's android. The fact that this high-handed, jerky-moving thing – human or artefact? From hell or merely purgatory? - is addressed to Watlington-on-Sea cleverly sows doubt: misdirected delivery or even hoax? But meanwhile the android has to be dealt with and placated as it alternately blusters and then cringes, offering free, fairly graphic sex as well as a 53 minute, programmed message to the hapless Nigel. The whole thing recalled Woody Allen's Sleeper where our hero's resuscitated from a 200 year, cryogenically-frozen sleep. Mr Steele's bewilderment is nicely done while Ms Mente-Bishop, veering from plodding robot-speak to machine-gun delivery, and at one point turning on a sixpence into Nigel's nagging mother, was a gem of versatility.
The third segment, Being Married, delves a little further into the territory of farce as Danny Steele's Leslie receives a pledge of undying love from his wife's sister Theresa (Marla Jane Lynch) while his wife's just popped out for a moment into the next room. But in this household red roses harbour black fly, black fly is best removed with a flamethrower, a clasp knife is produced, misunderstandings and parentheses abound... and as in all the best farce, levity ends tempered by murderous intent. The pace here was high, mirth from the audience was unconfined, and Ms Lynch was a real pocket rocket of frustrated passion.
Finally, in Being Saved, would-be suicidal playwright (Ms Mente-Bishop) is rescued by the chance intervention of a dog walker (Ms Lynch is from W. Australia; her accent here wandering delightfully from Cardiff to Calcutta via Kingston, Jamaica) so taken up by the minutiae of her life (her phone bill and a possibly asthmatic dog) as to be oblivious of the tragedy unfolding under her nose. "I'm an electrician", she implausibly announces, "that's why my dog's called Sparky!" Mistaking a suicide note for dropped litter, she reads it out pedantically, commenting: "Maybe you could write a play about this?" "I'm a comedy writer", comes the exasperated retort.
The Watlington Social hall is a modest room, and the acting area here little more than a space and a couple of chairs. But Paul Ekert's script cleverly kept the audience of c. 50 off-balance as it explored the desperation underlying modern life, dodging nimbly between laughter (there was plenty of that) and tragedy. Our three actors somehow remained straight-faced amid the mayhem, displaying canny comic timing. Liz Mente-Bishop was a manic presence, bursting with energy but also suggesting nuance to her playing that ought to find expression on a larger canvas than this.
Outbursts! opens at the Camden Fringe on Wednesday, 9th August