The Way You Tell Them

Theatre review by Steve Bennett

The Way You Tell Them may be considered rather an odd choice to headline the Beyond The Joke strand of theatre-comedy crossovers at the Camden People’s Theatre, since its creator Rachel Mars seems rather down on the very idea of comedy.

I say ‘seems’ because it’s a show whose intent is ambiguous – or muddled if you’re feeling less generous.

She sets out her stall from the start, explaining ‘I’ve got a problem with comedy’ and that the show is about ‘responsibility, control and compulsion’ within jokes, which she explores through personal tales and performance set-pieces.

Early on, there is some insight and wit, especially on the formative years that taught her the joy of making other people laugh. Interesting is the idea of ‘de-committing’, either the technique of a comedian taking a hesitant, low-status, self-deprecatory stance so as to pre-empt any criticism... or for the more strident, a way of back away from any potentially contentious ideas by tagging ‘only joking’ on to the end.

And that leads to some familiar complaints about the comedy of cruelty, as her good-humoured anecdotes give way to her sociology studies. Even without tabloid-fuelled ‘outrage’, much has been said about the fact that even on the supposedly enlightened stand-up circuit, you get better laughs from crude sexism (ironic or not) than anything more progressive. She knows that first-hand, having done a comedy course and a few open-mic nights, which she performed in a wolf suit as her own way of de-committing.

There’s an argument that laughing in the face of horrible subjects is a way of neutering them, but Mars has no truck with that. Laughing gives a ‘moral consent’ to the the content of the gag, she says.

This is despite a strong tradition of joke-telling within her Jewish family, which she explains with some pretty funny examples. It stems back from her grandfather, who came to Britain to flee the Holocaust, that claimed so many of his relatives.

But, Mars contests, that doesn’t make flippancy, or even laughter, right. How can you laugh, she sanctimoniously argues, when there is so much misery in the world. After all, the confessional prayer said during Yom Kippur deems frivolity and foolish thought to be a sin. To the Holocaust, she adds Aids, fatal blood clots and nuclear war to the cheery mix. Some people laughed out of reflex when the first test atom bomb was exploded – does that make it funny? Or adding fart noises to a heartbreaking film of a man talking about the death of a partner? The footage gets isolated outbreaks of nervous laughter, making the point that it’s a tension-breaker, but it seems heavy-handed.

There’s a small acknowledgement of the counter-argument – what is life without laughter? – but it’s quickly forgotten as she labours the point. Meanwhile, the commentary is broken up by interludes such as jaunty dance with audience volunteers or a Mighty Mouse routine that will baffle those not familiar with Andy Kaufman’s work – not that it makes much sense to those who are.

The play is an odd mix of oblique moments such as that, and points which are made so explicitly as to lack any subtlety, whether you agree with her thought-provoking points of view or not. You’ll yearn for something as simple and efficient as a one-liner after this.

Published: 11 Jan 2013

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.