Review by Harry Bower
Our society is in a bit of a mess. The cost of living is sky high, our rivers flooded with in sewage smell worse than the strongest smelling stilton, and our government has been less stable than a bridge made of crackers. At the heart of it all is our media. And it’s upon the polarisation of views, opinions presented as fact in this post-truth era, that Cheesy Cheesy Catchy Mousey is born.
Billed as an absurdist dark comedy about the media, the show promises to be interactive with the audience encouraged to vote throughout the show at appropriate moments using their smartphones. We are told this will shape the journey of the characters. In the interval three volunteers are asked to hang back while the audience exit to the bar so that they can be recorded saying some words which are then played back as part of act two. So many shows these days are going down the immersive route, but it’s much rarer to see a show follow through on claims to be interactive. Cheesy… does a good job of advertising and then encouraging the audience to vote – some relatively amusing jingles play during the sixty seconds of voting time in game show style – though I was surprised at how tame the opening votes were. It felt like a missed opportunity to give the audience more of a say, and as though we were being warmed up first, which I don’t think was needed.
The plot focuses on Sam, a nineteen-year-old lad with a question; do mice actually like cheese? In his ‘question everything’ phase, Sam is concerned we might all have been lied to from childhood about the likelihood of mice actually enjoying cheese, by television companies and generations of parents. Joined on stage in true absurd style by a seemingly magically appearing cast of his mother (Janet), best friend (AJ), teacher (Mr. Richards), and Cheesemonger (Gabriel), Sam embarks on a journey to find the truth. Along the way he encounters personifications of media platforms. A pokey know-it-all faux impartial BBC, a vegan hipster Channel 4, nerdy and money-begging Wikipedia, a racist Daily Mail, and an ‘over woke’ Guardian. Each character is on-the-nose, and though not groundbreaking in their criticisms or observations, these are for sure the best part of the piece, offering countless opportunity for laughter when they interact with each other. Sam is somewhat lost in the noise of these combative platforms, which is entirely appropriate given what they are here to represent – the bottomless pit of irrelevant and often deafening noise that is our media.
The question posed is a pretty good one. The first time it is asked you do genuinely go “Oh yeah – that’s weird isn’t it? I’ve never actually seen a mouse eat a piece of cheese!”. Unfortunately, Sam’s character is restricted in his development by being poorly written. He literally repeats the same four words over and over again in various orders for almost the entire show. Clearly supposed to represent the everyday person who is just simply searching for the answer to what is seemingly a simple question, Sam is presented with answers he’s not asked for, by people he didn’t want to ask in the first place. The problem, is that we get the point within about ten minutes, and the remaining eighty is made up of dogged repetition which is exhaustingly obtuse and doesn’t add anything new to its point.
The piece is written to be deliberately self-aware. To begin with, that is charming and amusing in equal parts. However, this is a trope overused so much that by the end it becomes self-indulgent; constant references to the writer of the play and their intentions, the meta actors-realising-it’s-a-play mechanics, the repeated reference to reviewers being in the audience – it’s all tiring. There is self-deprecating humour and breaking of the fourth wall in which the cast refer to the audience as ‘stupid’. That’s fine if you’re doing it purely for the comedy but it felt as though this was a poor attempt at hiding some insecurities in the script.
The writing in general is a real mixed bag. There are some genuinely funny characters and moments in the piece, particularly the Cheesemonger’s exasperation and the Meta VR Headset. Other characters though, like AJ, Sam’s best friend, are let down with some awkward stilted dialogue and lack of depth. A lot of the humour was cheap, I thought, references to pronouns and Brexit and other topical cultural issues thrown in for a quick laugh rather than because the piece has anything meaningful to say about them.
Despite some tripping over of each other’s lines, the cast all prove their talent. Sam is played by the wonderful Helder Fernandes whom I was lucky to catch in Our Generation at the National Theatre last year. His talent in presenting a headstrong and yet naïve and easily manipulated Sam are to be applauded; I just felt frustrated that he wasn’t able to showcase his full range. Instead he was trapped in an angry loop for the duration. Nkhanise Phiri as AJ and others is also brilliant – with a hugely impressive American accent – bringing a much-needed dynamism to the piece. Anya Sayadian (Janet/others) and Ben Keenan (Tom/others) hold the piece together as firm foundation, each solid and effective in their roles. Jacob Lovick was a standout for me in terms of commitment and entertainment as Gabriel the cheesemonger, and Twitter. I can’t wait to follow him in whatever he does next.
I really wanted to love Cheesy Cheesy Catchy Mousey. With a fab name, a great blurb, and a spare Friday night, I thought I was onto a winner. It is of course possible that I have missed the point entirely of the show – and so as ever if you are reading this, I would strongly recommend you check it out for yourself. For me, the lack of nuance meant the whole thing felt like a blunt instrument, a sort of not-great black mirror impersonation, with a cliché ending that risked jumping the shark. Absurd comedies have a right to be ridiculous, but I did find myself questioning if Cheesy… was crackers beyond my understanding. Cutting a few slices of cheddar off to shorten it would be a good way to start improvements. It’s either that, or it simply needs a lot more maturing.
Cheesy Cheesy Catchy Mousey plays at Camden People’s Theatre 23 – 25 June 2023. For more information and to buy tickets visit: https://cptheatre.co.uk/whatson/Cheesy-Cheesy-Catchy-Mousey
Photos by Oli Sones