Jay Johnson: The Two And Only
Show type: West End run
Forget everything you think you know about ventriloquism. Shut it neatly away in a box along with that fat little green bird who wished he could fly and that mangy Scotty dog that used to spit a lot. Because throwing your voice has just come of age in this West End premiere, following the Tony Award-winning success of his Broadway debut last year.
Accompanying this gifted showman and master storyteller on stage for an autobiographical blend of comedy and theatrical story-telling is a wonderfully eclectic cast of characters including Darwin, a rare breed of jazz monkey who was born in a trunk in a comedy club, Spaulding, a tennis ball retired from the game after a particularly rough Andy Rodick match, and Bob, a product of the Hollywood star system and Jay’s famous co-star from the Seventies international hit comedy, SOAP.
For all the attempts to reinvent it, ventriloquism is a fundamentally old-fashioned form of entertainment; and Jay Johnson is a fundamentally old-fashioned form of entertainer.
His entertaining child-friendly show The Two And Only is a theatrical love-letter – or, pessimistically, obituary – to the bizarre craft that has provided him with a good, and enduring, living.
To emphasise his lineage, Johnson begins with a rather formal social history of the art, from when it was considered at best a freakish abnormality, at worst a sign of demonic possession. There’s a dark show waiting to happen here, but not from this genial American. He brilliantly performs a short scene with the severed head of a guillotine victim, but it has all the shock value of a Halloween costume, rather than anything more sinister.
Johnson is rather serious about ventriloquism, and although his monologue is not without wit, it does veer close to being a lecture. Then, as we move along the timeline to his own career, it becomes an ‘audience with…’ as he describes his beginnings in ventriloquism and how he landed a part in the sitcom Soap – an announcement made as if he was expecting a round of applause.
It’s slim material, but Johnson is an assured storyteller and brings out the best in it. The show really only comes alive, however, when he brings out one of his dolls – which is surprisingly infrequently. He has a vulture, a snake, a monkey that’s more Keith Harris’s Cuddles than Nina Conti’s Monk, a talking tennis ball and Bob, his companion from Soap, and a couple of surprises I won’t spoil here.
These sketches zip along with a torrent of quickfire gags, often very cheesy, but also surprisingly funny. The conviction and pace with which they are told certainly pays dividends.
Johnson is an undeniable master of his craft. Not only do all the puppets have distinctive characters, his technical skill with stifling his speech and ‘throwing his voice’ is impeccable. He started young, as a teenager he performed 918 shows in one 13-week season, working at a theme park as a teenager, and his talent has been honed over the decades since.
In fact, those theme park roots still show. There’s a Disneyland feel throughout; from the fine craftsmanship that went into creating his companions to the all-American wholesomeness and overall slickness of the performance. Then there’s the mawkishly sentimental tone, which you can just about forgive because he pulls it off with such polished skill.
There’s certainly an audience for this sort of show, though whether it can repeat its Tony-winning Broadway run in more cynical London remains to be seen. But as safe, solid family entertainment, and a light-hearted introduction to ventriloquism, The Two And Only has a lot in its favour. It’s ventriloquism for dummies, you could say.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
July 4. 2008