Will Franken: Little Joe | Review by Paul Fleckney

Will Franken: Little Joe

Note: This review is from 2016

Review by Paul Fleckney

Stand 4 seems to be where comedians go to air their grievances. Like David Longley a few hours before him, Will Franken is lashing out against the strictures of the comedy industry.

'This is my last Fringe show,' he says towards the end, taking advantage of a tech hiccup to briefly address the crowd, 'and I just to want to do something that’s the sound of my own head. Put two fingers up to everything. I wanna go out in a blaze of glory.'

It’s hard to imagine a show this surreal feeling like a blaze of glory, but then surrealism is Franken’s domain, his method of expression. Perhaps with him the stranger the show, the angrier he is.

So what is it? That’s not an easy question to answer, as it’s several things at the same time, but Franken’s self-assessment of it being 'surrealist satire' sums it up nicely. It’s highly political. A frustrated and embattled Franken takes aim at some liberal holy cows – the gender pay gap, the BBC (in relation to its Brexit coverage), tolerance of Islam – though there’s enough misdirection, digression and metaphor to make it hard to pin him down to a specific opinion about any of it. How the song There’s Nowhere For A Man To Be Sexist fitted into all this I didn’t figure out – it’s one of a few too many obscure moments that blow the show off-course.

Then there’s the story of titular Little Joe, a half-pig half-rabbit who lives in water, which frames the show and appears to be a kind of metaphor for Franken himself, neither one thing nor the other, 'neither left nor right', struggling to survive.

In-between times there’s a succession of characters and storylines, with varying degrees of satirical purpose – the corporate CEO trying to conduct a board meeting, a court putting Franken on trial for various times he's written the letter 'X' (notably the one he put in the box on his Brexit ballot paper), a Scottish family who dies of sexism. They twist and warp into each other; only occasionally does anything feel like a discrete 'sketch'.

It feels like a show that hasn’t been wrangled into shape yet. It’s a massive ask to do so, such is the volume of characters and messages and metaphors Franken is trying to cram in, while performing it in a heavily stylised way, while also trying to make it funny. For example, the pretty complex opening sequence about Little Joe and his creator isn’t just baffling, arriving as it does without any context, but it goes on a long time, and I think it put the audience on the back foot. It took a while for confidence to be restored.

There are some moments of excellence, mainly when clarity did bubble up to the surface. His turn-on-a-sixpence comic acting is as impressive as ever and there were some laugh-out-loud pieces on Labour’s dodgy antisemitic record, and in his sharia/western court scenes.

The show is soundtracked by a lot of mid-career The Beatles, and it’s like he’s attempted to create a comedy version of Revolver all by himself. It’s partially successful.

'You never tried to impress the system, Mr Franken,' says one of his characters, a customer services bod. Little Joe is certainly the show of someone who doesn’t play ball, and while I wouldn’t call it a blaze of glory, it’s a pretty decent fireworks display.

Review date: 16 Aug 2016
Reviewed by: Paul Fleckney
Reviewed at: Stand 3 and 4

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