We live in a post-Sachsgate dystopia of compliance and court judgements on jokes, a world which contains enough hand-wringing to trigger a national arthritis epidemic. Comedy is locked in a bizarre battle with moral rectitude, where valid concern over rampant rape jokes is drowned out by Mary Whitehouse hogwash and media-stoked ethical hysteria. Steven Bloomer’s timely but unfocussed play offers a scrappy meditation on the power and the pitfalls of joke-making, unfortunately hampered by a severe case of conceptual schizophrenia.
John is a stand up comic, banged up overnight for an off-colour joke and now facing accusations of child abuse, visited by a frazzled social worker with a heart of gold. As she delves into his maniacally troubled past and tries to piece together the events of the night before, Bloomer stages an insightful debate on the purpose of humour.
Punch glances all-too-briefly at the Twitter joke trial, at controversial outbursts from the likes of Frankie Boyle, at the quisling policies of the BBC, and it’s at its best as a vehicle for Bloomer’s sharp observations. The concept of ‘committing a joke’, of jokes as a virus which have a mimetic power that can send them spinning wildly beyond their creator’s control is original and skilfully explored. Similarly, John’s defence of the role of the comedian, of the jester or the trickster who exists to ‘say the unsayable’ and disrupt systems of power and deference is deeply intriguing.
This promise is dashed by the addition of extraneous dramatic devices, such as John’s flagrant abuse of his daughter, that render the subtler strains of Bloomer’s narrative irrelevant. They’re all in the service of the Punch and Judy meta-narrative that has been bolted on with little success. The Fringe has been awash with dark re-interpretations of those pier-side puppets for at least a decade, and Punch sells itself short by adding to them. Yes, Punch and Judy contains domestic violence and yes, Punch and Judy is pretty creepy if you transpose it to a south London flat that shakes with drunken aggression and weeping, but it’s beginning to feel very stale. The finale, in which Jessica Edwards’ generally reliable direction descends into fairground abstraction, feels like being beaten around the head by a truncheon- wielding crocodile that should have stayed firmly in the subtext.
John is played with impish intensity by Matthew Jones of Frisky and Mannish fame, coming across as the bastard child of a faun and Jim Jeffries, and segues between fragments of his stand-up act and a merciless autobiography. Jones excels as the Loki-esque spirit of mischief, and it’s a joy to see him flaunt his underused acting chops. Kirsty Mann’s social worker is an effective foil, but Bloomer underwrites the character and she tends to pale next to Jones’ dynamism.
Pleasing hints of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death abound, there’s intelligence and anger here, and Bloomer’s dialogue contains both some brilliant aphorisms and the best swear word ever (‘betwattled’), but Punch never lands a square blow on any of its targets.