Review by Harry Bower
“NEVER Jump the Shark!" warns expert writer Frank to a group of novices at his weekend sitcom-crafting masterclass. ‘Jumping the Shark’ is, as many readers will know, a phrase used to describe when a television series runs out of ideas with its plot and departs from normality, usually by introducing radical change. The question is, does Jumping The Shark, a self-proclaimed celebration of sitcoms playing at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate this month, run out of ideas itself? Or is it worthy of being renewed for another season?
Sitting waiting for this new play to begin, there is a purposeful soundtrack playing, a musical medley of theme tunes from famous sitcoms down the years. Only Fools and Horses and Fawlty Towers are the two I haven’t been able to get out of my head, and it is the indomitable great British sitcom on which this show builds its foundations. In a nostalgic monologue our sitcom writer, Frank, waxes lyrical about the significance of sitcoms on the formative years of his childhood, and the impact they have had on culture and society down the years. His is a deep-seated and somewhat selfish obsession with the format having written many successful scripts for the BBC and now having found himself alone and out in the cold, delivering masterclass workshops to make ends meet.
The first scene opens in a stuffy and cliché hotel conference room, where five strangers arrive ready to have genius imparted to them. When Frank arrives, he is greeted by the group, each distinct and individual, each with their own agenda. What begins is his seminar outlining some tips and tricks of comedy writing, and some homework; each participant is to go away that night and create their own beginnings of a sitcom based on their experiences in life. That’s pretty much the whole of the first act and while it might be described as character development or setting the scene, not a huge amount of that actually happens, bar the final thirty seconds. With the laughs sparse at this point I was concerned for the second half.
Happily, I needn’t have been. Act 2 is a much better theatrical experience all-round, with laughs plentiful and some proper character arcs which offer redemption to those that need it. Each aspiring writer performs their sitcom, one or two scenes, using their colleagues as cast members and collecting feedback on the result. Because each is basing their piece on their own lived experiences, it is these snapshots which offer the greatest insight into the lives of each writer. Some of these yarns, like Dale’s egotistical self-portrait, are really very good, pulling at heartstrings and exposing some damaging truths about relationships, tearing down walls, resulting in characters embracing their emotional reality. Others are less impactful and serve more as light relief, though they are all humorous enough not to be redundant.
The characters are well-crafted overall and performances broadly strong. And they ought to be with some well-cast television actors at the helm, the most recognisable of which is David Schaal of The Office and The Inbetweeners fame. Schall’s Frank is visibly stoic for most of the plot and at times two-dimensional, though his passion for sitcoms comes across with a feint half-smile and the encouragement for his students sparks urgency in his delivery. It is toward the end of the piece in which he shines – without ruining the plot twist for potential audience members, you can literally see Frank discovering an uncomfortable truth in real time - and Shaal’s performance is both touching and naturalistic.
Sarah Moyle stands out to me as the actor blessed with the most well-rounded and lovable character, her portrayal of Pam the lonely fifty-something experiencing the menopause and going through relationship breakdown, desperate to explore her long-buried ambitions of becoming a creative. Moyle gives Pam a bumbling, affable and sweet-natured gloss with the softness of her tone and a sparkle in her eyes suggesting there’s more to the oldest member of the writers group than meets the eye. It is Pam’s two-scene sitcom which is the pick of the bunch, too, packed with double-meaning. Jasmine Armfield of Eastenders fame plays Amy, Frank’s antagonist and is relegated to the side-lines for much of the first act, only to drop a narrative bomb pre-interval and later become essential to the ending of the show. I found it hard to get invested in Amy’s story. That is no fault of the actor who delivers admirably, portraying a calm confidence and effective scepticism of Frank’s teachings, which always subtly hints to the audience that all might not be as it seems. But I didn’t really care for the character, and I couldn’t get excited when she finally got her win.
Unfortunately for me the other characters didn’t endear themselves, either. Each of Dale (Jack Trueman), Morgan (Harry Visinoni) and Gavin (Robin Sebastian) are essentially over-egged stereotypes of an offensive and borderline homophobe cockney; an eccentric head-in-the-clouds Manc who is critical of the class system; and a camp and posh middle-aged failing performer desperate for his big break. None of the three get to participate properly in the closing scenes and are instead relegated to throwaway lines or repeat gags which cheapen their development. The performances of the actors themselves are great; it is the writing which I struggle with here. Had each character been developed more fully in act one I may have been more invested in their conclusions. As it happens when they left the stage, I felt no emotional connection despite having spent two hours with them. I was also a little miffed by the lack of diversity in the cast. Diversity for diversity’s sake is never appropriate but given these characters have been written from scratch and represent a huge variety of different backgrounds and experiences, it’s surprising to me that there isn’t at least one tale which differs from the white lower-middle class stories which have been told a million times over.
I’m thankful that Act 2 provided the laughs and appropriate levels of character development to finally get me invested in the story, and as the narrative builds to a crescendo of confrontation, I did feel theatrically satisfied. The twist is genuinely brilliant and I did enjoy watching Amy and Frank’s relationship come to a head. However, the slow start to the show was at times a bit boring, and this coupled with some uninspiring stereotypical character types made it a hard watch. Jumping The Shark is by writers who have pedigree and ‘get’ comedy, and is said to be a celebration of sitcoms. It certainly is that, but it hits and misses in roughly equal amount. If you get the chance to see it on its London leg of this tour, on balance it is worth your time. It’s a fun night out once you get past the midway point and is deserving of audience applause for the twist and final scene in the second act alone.
Jumping the Shark plays at Upstairs At The Gatehouse in Highgate until Sunday 12 March. For more information and to buy tickets visit: https://upstairsatthegatehouse.ticketsolve.com/ticketbooth/shows/1173639081
Photos by Robert Armstrong