It’s hard to distinguish between act and reality in Chris Williams’s I Never Told A Joke In My Life – part solo performance piece, part stand up and part tribute to the greatest comedian Caerphilly ever had to offer. While we busy ourselves questioning the authenticity of volunteers drawn from the audience, Williams shifts character, skilfully building then breaking a relatable rapport.
At some points, he’s the smooth storyteller who digresses from a sequence of deadpan one-liners to conjure a romantic cloud of smoke out of talcum powder; at others times, he’s the excruciatingly nervous fellow who looks completely out of place in his own skin, and completely at home in his dweeby “I LOVE Grandma” t-shirt. These shifts in character are seamlessly and humorously developed, so that even as Williams cuts an awkward figure on stage, he keeps the audience in the palm of his hand.
With a style reminiscent of Forced Entertainment’s Tomorrow’s Parties, Williams brings a richly meditative quality to his speculations on failure. The script is littered with “I could…”s (such as the cruelly revelational “I could tell you that I’m a dead comedian so you could give me more respect”) – and through research, imagination and a villainous desire to tempt fate, the piece uses a compilation of flops to great success, deconstructing the form of stand up comedy while keeping its spirit. Then, the rhythm breaks. Williams takes on a more conversational tone to illuminate his own experience of dying on stage – a rough set-up in an east London market stall, where his mic was turned off mid-show. Our performer sings along to music on the wrong beat, he trumps his volunteers at looking the most awkward and, with a devilish wit, highlights how behind every strong performance, there’s the possibility of a failed show.
In his meditation on what it means to die on stage – both in the stomach-churningly embarrassing sense, and the tragic, literal one – Williams dives into extended wordplay with a ripe black humour. He builds a whole show out of one conceit: the dual meaning of “dying on stage” and, using this wicked pun as a vehicle, the narrative circles around the moment when Tommy Cooper had a fatal heart attack mid-show, surrounded by laughing fans. And here lies the punchline of the piece. As we busy ourselves separating fact from fiction, Williams’s circular tale, though seemingly directionless in its absurd meanderings, gradually draws in on a horrifying snapshot from the history of comedy – crucially, one in which a similarly confused live audience played a part.
Just as audience members in 1984 were unable to determine where slapstick gags ended and real trouble began, Williams’s love song to the lead balloon encourages us to negotiate the flimsy boundaries between showmanship and spontaneity.