>comic potential by fiction farm

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 21 nov 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: suntec city auditorium
>rating: *1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some indefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


In the best-forgotten 1989 Jean-Claude Van Damme post-apocalyptic B-movie, 'Cyborg', a beautiful, impressively bosomed Dayle Hadden has just been rescued by our high-kicking hero and is reclining demurely (if memory serves) on a pile of used car parts or some other such sci-fi debris. How seductive! How arousing! But no - in a totally unexpected plot twist, Hadden pulls off the back of her head to reveal (shock!) a flashing, bleeping computer brain. We cut to a close-up of her face and suddenly, where before it had been the shifting emotional canvas of a silver screen ingénue, it has become a twitching hydraulic mask, no doubt a reject from Jim Henson's Creature Shop. At this point I stopped watching.

Such it was with COMIC POTENTIAL (except that I didn't stop watching) when Jamie Yeo, after the revelation that she was in fact an "actoid" - a robot actor - switched from fluid, natural movements to the faux-mechanical mincing of a life-size Barbie doll with badly oiled joints - and then occasionally switched back again when she lost concentration. Why? If Yeo's character, Jacie Triplethree, is capable of walking normally, then surely that is what she would choose to do; if she is not, then her sudden epiphanies of grace are inexplicable.

Not that I blame Yeo. The problem with COMIC POTENTIAL, in which Yeo's android learns about life and love with Hossan Leong's rookie TV writer, is that none of the actors seemed to have progressed beyond first read-through stage. And that is the director (Ng Chin Han)'s fault.

Take, for example, John Widelock as Chandler Tate, a cinematic auteur turned frustrated daytime TV director. The character is regularly described as a rebel, and appears from the script to be the kind of iconoclastic firebrand who launches into Basil Fawlty-esque histrionics at the drop of a cue. But Widelock seemed to be taking acting tips from 'Sesame Street's' Oscar the Grouch and believed "rebel" to mean the kind of guy who complains about bad service in a restaurant.

>>'The result of the play's directionlessness was that you could count the laughs on the fingers of one finger'

This is a perfectly understandable misreading for a first read-through, but not for a fully rehearsed show. It is especially damaging in an Ayckbourn comedy, where much of the humour depends on characterisation; so when Tate proclaims that the two secrets of comedy are (i) the unexpected and (ii) anger, this should resonate with what we have seen of his character and cause laughs all round. Sadly, the most unexpected thing Widelock did was to temporarily stop whinging, and although he may have successfully portrayed ennui, resentment and even slow-burn frustration, none of these things is anger, and none of them is what the script requires. Even worse, Ayckbourn's comedies also rely on their pace, and Widelock's misanthropic grumbling felt like it added hours to the run time.

Or take Hossan Leong, whose pacing was fine but whose timing was unreliable and whose characterisation was indeterminate. Timing-wise, you'd think that Leong, who is a good stand-up comedian and an even better emcee, would have no problem, but roles in plays such as 'Lovepuke', 'Asian Boys Vol. 1' and 'Lady of Soul and the Ultimate 'S' Machine' have seen him throwing away some lines too soon while overstressing others and consequently getting fewer laughs than he should. Perhaps other people's words interfere. The characterisation problem is less surprising, and indeed Leong's characters are generally very much himself with vague hints of otherness when he remembers. In many plays, this approach works well enough, but here it doesn't, and again, it is the director's job to sort this out.

Or take Christian Huber, odd-jobbing through various actoid roles. Actually, some people get it right at the first read-through, and Huber, having a good year artistically, was one of them.

The result of the play's directionlessness was that, at least on the night I went, you could count the laughs on the fingers of one finger. And I need hardly add that in an out-and-out comedy (and Ayckbourn's pretend to be nothing more) this is the one unforgivable sin. The comedic sterility was exacerbated by the fact that the Suntec City Auditorium - already an impersonal and corporate space - was at best a quarter full. I've said it before and shall no doubt say it again: for a comedy, regardless of the size of the venue, you need a full house, because people are too self-conscious to laugh in isolation. Of course, in COMIC POTENTIAL, they had the additional excuse that there was nothing funny to laugh at, but I maintain that either a larger audience or a smaller venue would have improved the atmosphere immeasurably. Somebody somewhere must have miscalculated how many tickets they could realistically sell.

Other things were ill-thought-out, too. The job of a costume designer in a play set in the future (in this case 2086) is to suggest that we are in a world that is different from our own and which may work by different rules, but which is nonetheless equally viable. Hayden Ng's costumes did not suggest this; they suggested that we were partly on a catwalk, partly in an office and wholly in the wrong. Moreover, Ng only seemed interested in dressing the women, and only dressing them in skimpy high fashion and in black. So while Harley Buckland's engineer wore to work an ensemble that could have stayed on her body only through unseen magnetism, Leong was stuck in the garb of a junior salaryman and Widelock was kitted out with some kind of fleece that his teenage son must have discarded in the mid 90's. It made no sense.

Still, at least the costumes were not alone in this. Andy Ong's hair design made no sense either, doling out follicular follies to some (e.g. a tightly-permed Mohican for Sandy Phillips) while leaving others with the short back and sides they got from their local sri dewa. And Goh Boon Teck's spare, monochromatic set design, which shared the costumes' job description of suggesting a world, suggested nothing so much as a badly designed set.

As an Englishman, I have strong opinions on how Alan Ayckbourn's plays should be done, and I believe that it is very easy to get them wrong. But I also believe that it is quite hard to get them so wrong that no one laughs. I can't decide whether it is ironic or apt that Fiction Farm has managed to do this with the play that the writer named COMIC POTENTIAL.