Running until Saturday 23 June 2012, this is the final play of the season, which ends on a comedy about unemployment and living with elderly relatives. You have to admire a director prepared to take on this kind of script in a recession, before an audience who either are or are caring for the elderly relatives.
Jef Pirie has taken a script from the 1980s and modernised it to play out in the present day and this succeeds, with the odd reference to Wikipedia and use of the computer in job hunting. But this play will offer no comfort between the laughs, it is one of the most challenging comedies the group has staged.
Rob Fagg plays John Bailey, an engineering consultant made redundant, an enormous part that leaves him with very little time off stage. At various points in the play he compares his life to the book of Job, drawing biblical parallels, but there are no morals to his story. Fagg presents John as a real person, light in his treatment of mother-in-law and dislike of his bigoted neighbour, but dark in the way he treats his marriage and relationship with his son.
As he struggles to find work, he grows ever closer to self-destruction as the lives of the people around him develop at pace. He becomes as isolated as the mother-in-law he jokes about bricking up in her granny flat, eventually starting to brick up the walls in his own world. The downward spiral is fascinating, allowing Fagg some lovely humour when playing off his co-stars.
Susie Powell plays his wife Helen, who creates a sympathetic and tolerant character that is as much a victim of John’s redundancy, if not more so. As she continues to build her business, run her home and keep an eye on mother, it becomes a commentary on work ethic and gender that leaves man looking quite pathetic.
There is a beautiful scene, quietly played, where Helen returns from work early and makes a discovery about John’s life at home. A very simple moment perfectly executed without fanfare and then life goes on. In any other script this discovery would be a moment large enough for the interval curtain to fall, but here it is catalyst to nothing greater than a fitting display of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ mentality printed on everything these days.
The neighbours, Arthur and Gwen Hollis are played by Paul and Diane ffitch, with Paul stepping into the role late in the day from his role as Assistant Director. They deliver the couple you would dread to live next door to. Lots of opinions they’re keen to share, plenty of popping around for drinks and checking everything is alright. It is all made worse by Arthur having plenty of work and a desire for his wife to be more like Helen, whilst Gwen is delighted to have a new friend to spend her days with. If they bring conflict to the house, it is a conflict nobody seems that fussed about.
The mother-in-law, Mary, played by Maggie Campbell, steals the early scenes with her constant efforts to find company away from her radio phone ins. The Little Theatre audience will recognise Mary as a woman with the power to guilt trip her younger relatives, hold the most developed and modern thinking in the family, deliver pithy observations and know more than the household would give her credit for. As her family go out for the evening, leaving her alone with an oven-ready pizza for one, there is a difficult goodbye between Mary and Helen that leaves you with sympathy for both women, no room for emotion, just get on with it.
If the early scenes are stolen by the mother-in-law, the second act sees John’s son Tom, played by Jack Sutton, stealing the one belly-laugh this show offers. This play is a comedy with a lot to say that is very downbeat, slow and serious. The jokes on offer are unlikely to inspire a lot of loud laughter from audiences through the week. I found it a mix of smiling at the humour mixed with people laughing under their breath. Nobody, cast or audience, should be disheartened by this, as it builds to a great pay off that builds from half light to a stunning revelation that lifted the show tremendously. The play found a new confidence and energy from that laugh and it was safe to start tidying up the loose ends.
‘Why Me?’ is witty and has well realised characters. There are problems with pace in what is a very long play, with a lot of pauses. Some of these pauses are for comic effect, but others will likely tighten up through the run of the show. It takes on difficult subject matter and never trivialises the problems characters face. Well worth a look, but don’t go expecting an easy ride or for anyone to get their just desserts.
For more information visit: www.toadslittletheatre.co.uk
Last review from the Little Theatre: As You Like It (Guest Reviews)