The thing about Phil (Patrick Brennan) being a veteran comedian making a comeback gig is that the audience isn’t treated (or indeed subjected) to very much in the way of comedy. The entire play is set in a makeshift dressing room in one of the upper floors of a pub. The play bills itself as an “examination of masculinity in distress”, though it could be argued there wasn’t much masculinity in evidence in the first place to be distressed. There’s a sense of superiority about Phil that suggests he thinks he can get away with doing whatever he likes without any repercussions, and when his lover Ria (Yasmin Paige) notes that she’s out to work five days out of seven while he lounges about, he takes a chauvinistic approach.
It is, frankly, difficult to sympathise with whatever Phil’s plight appears to be. Evicted by his landlord for failing to pay rent, but extremely reluctant to earn his keep, even when Ria has gone out of her way to set up this ‘comeback gig’, he walks out, bags in hand. The amassed crowd isn’t big enough for him, the atmosphere isn’t right, and so on, excuse after excuse as to why he can’t go on. But having made up his mind to cancel, he has a change of heart after some persuasion, largely by friend and obsessed fan Ned (Adrian McLoughlin). It would, of course, have made for a very short play indeed if Phil had flounced off and walked away, not to return, but if such lack of backbone is meant to be a display of masculinity, perhaps there’s nothing wrong with it being in ‘distress’.
There’s also Phil’s son Josh (Dave Perry), an impressionable young man whose mother Liz (Carolyn Backhouse) – as well as Ned – encourages him to continue pursuing his professional career. He has, apparently, worked hard to get where he is already – presumably a level of seniority in his chosen field is somewhat unusual for someone of his age, and his plans to go in a different direction raises eyebrows. There’s some conviction when he tries to take the next step in his relationship with his significant other, but when things don’t go his way, I felt as though it was probably for the best rather than feeling any sympathy. Perhaps the fault is mine, as I’m unromantic as sin.
There are comings and goings, with events happening downstairs all too frequently to facilitate a private discussion between different parties. This denies the show a big showdown with everyone together in the same room at the same time – there’s no big reveal here. On one level, it’s very contrived having X disappear almost immediately after Y shows up, but it does give the audience different perspectives on the past, and the audience ends up knowing more than any of the individual characters.
Occasionally, the dialogue came across as a little stilted, although the delivery of every line was crystal clear (it’s surprising how many productions don’t quite get the sound levels to perfectly balance). There’s no smoke without fire, as the old adage would have it, and there’s enough going on to maintain interest. There just wasn’t anything to glean from this show that hasn’t already been explored elsewhere, and part of me wonders whether I would have had a better evening seeing Phil’s comeback comedy gig in full instead.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Above a pub in North London, Phil is fighting off panic about his comeback gig.
Once a regular stand-up on Saturday night television, Phil’s back to square one. Dropped by his manager, he finds himself with only his old friend Ned at his side, whose friendship increasingly feels like unrequited obsession. As Phil laments his dwindling career, his son arrives believing that his dad harbours a damaging secret. With the gig hour nearing, old flames and past misdemeanours catch up with the family. Tonight, Phil’s career might not be the only thing in tatters.
Comic and moving, Broken Lad is a subtle examination of masculinity and virility in distress.
This show is part of Arcola’s outdoor festival Today I’m Wiser.
Cast: Carolyn Backhouse, Patrick Brennan, Adrian McLoughlin, Yasmin Paige, Dave Perry
Creative team: Cecilia Trono (Set and Costume Designer), Millie Cousins (Stage Manager), Jamie Lu (Sound Designer), Cat Ryall (Production Manager), and Ellie Collyer-Bristow CDG (Casting Consultant).
Arcola Theatre presents
A new comedy by Robin Hooper
Directed by Richard Speir
13 October – 6 November 2021