After scoring a Fringe hit last year with Inheritance Blues, a banter-fuelled, devised musical black comedy, DugOut Theatre have brought the same distinctive approach to a new play by Alexander Owen. At first glance, the themes look weighty – Hamlet and memory – but they’re worn lightly, or shrugged off completely, for an inconsistent piece that’s light on everything but laughs.
Danny is a disillusioned journalist, desperate to escape the toxic confines of the celebrity gossip pages. His depression lifts into action after he spots Imogen, who he’s been fixated on for years, on stage in Hamlet, playing Ophelia. To meet her again, Danny wrangles an interview with Andrew, a famous theatre director who’s keen to make things as pencil-snappingly awkward as he can, even before it becomes apparent that he’s now dating Imogen. As the evening wears on, things get stranger, and Danny’s slim claim on the upper hand weaker.
Memories are exhumed, vulnerabilities exploited, and towel-dropping jokes fade from blue to black. Several of the characters feel thin – especially Imogen (Nina Shenkman), who occupies a strange place as the only woman in the play, accessed almost entirely through Danny’s fantasies. The pair met on the beach, aged fifteen, and Danny’s never been able to let go of the memory, making for some faintly creepy reminisces about watching her washing the sand off her feet. She’s moved on, the main additions to her dreamgirl personality mild generic cattiness and a healthy level of contempt for journos; Nina does a fantastically histrionic Ophelia on stage, but in Andrew’s flat she hasn’t got much to work with.
Perch (Ed Smith), a monumentally irritating techy/helpmeet/henchmen, extracts laughs by shouting “legend” and misunderstanding everything, but since he’s about as necessary to the plot as the headphones he keeps losing, his constant interruptions feel like showboating. This piece is really all about Andrew and Danny, the blinking awkwardness of their interactions smoothed along by incidental music from Luke Murphy as Chippers. His wild-eyed energy emphasises how stiff their dynamic is; he reels rings round them with his accordion, making piratical breaks into death metal and phone ringtones. Thanks to constant underscoring, the piece feels slick, but the actual scenes are a bit of a mish-mash of sentimentalised memories, mildly sinister power games, and joking around that doesn’t have anything to do with the plot. There’s only one twist, and its as groaningly implausible as Danny’s ten-year Nina obsession.
DugOut Theatre’s blurb for the show makes Hamlet central, and there’s even a skull on the poster -in the actual production, its mostly an incidental detail. There are so many missed opportunities to do something clever with Hamlet, to bring out the sense of Danny as his hapless analogue. When the characters do eventually talk about it, it’s in an incredibly facile, read-the-Wikipedia sort of way – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t dead, they’re just a bit irritating.
What makes this production so frustrating is the obvious skill of the company – a lot of the dialogue is genuinely funny, and their style progresses elegantly into black comedy. But for all the play bandies around memory, imagination, Hamlet, it’s oddly mute on all three; without the clash of swords or ideas, its building menace ends up toothless.