As the lights dim on the modest stage of the Camden People’s Theatre, a dapper John-Luke Roberts strides purposefully into the middle of the space, stands in front of an angle-poise lamp, and silently removes one shoe and sock. So far, so quirky. John Cleese springs to mind, even though the two have practically no physical characteristics in common. It’s the besuited English eccentricity, I suppose. Suddenly the lights snap on and Roberts is addressing the audience, casually, conversationally. It’s disarming, especially if like me you were expecting a silly voice or a slapstick walk. Then he says something so throwaway, you almost don’t realise it’s supposed to be a punchline. The subsequent laughter is that much greater and more sustained. Eventually, having completely relaxed his audience, he begins his story.
Roberts is a very good performer, possessing one of those enviable presences that manges to be easy and interesting at the same time. As a writer, he’s much more than good. The navigation between real and surreal elements in his fantasy rarely jars, and the whole effect is remarkably unforced, considering the ever-present danger of contrivance in a story about a murderous ghost who inhabits a rolled-up sock.
The central character, Ralph Guiltless – surely a name taken from Edwin Drood – is a failed artist, a lovesick loser pining for his friend Laura. The story begins when Ralph’s rolled-up sock begins talking to him, manipulating him and coercing him into crimes. What follows is a tightly-controlled mystery, complete with a variety of convincing accents and a deliciously implausible twist, executed with the confident braggadocio of a Shakespearean comedy.
Sock Puppet is billed – inaccurately, in my opinion – as a “dark and stupid comedy.” The noun is correct, the adjectives questionable. If there’s one undeniable fact about Roberts, it is that he’s far from “stupid.” The Cambridge graduate is demonstrably intelligent. Nor is his writing style stupid. It’s verbose, rich and idiosyncratic, without ever being opaque. Even the subject of his monologue – a possessed sock persuading the protagonist to carry out multiple stranglings – is ridiculous, whimsical, supremely silly, but not stupid.
More importantly, the show isn’t actually that “dark” either. Though the plot involves deceit and murder, Roberts’s method of enacting it is that of an academic professor, clearly his preferred mode of comic delivery. Since he is so adept at this style, and the laughter pay-offs are numerous, it’s difficult to begrudge him this lack of variation in performance choice, but as a result the monologue sits in the middle of two more exciting extremes. He never whips out a moment of truly shocking horror, which would have surprised and unsettled, nor does he offset some of the potentially darker facets of his story by revealing them with, say, tender sweetness, or maniacal glee, or anything tonally unexpected at all. A full-length one-man show such as this desperately needs to sustain interest to its dÃ©nouement, and while Roberts never failed to amuse, his persona began to lose its ability to fascinate once it became clear that a surprise moment of theatrical impact wasn’t on the horizon.
A more fully-realised production of Sock Puppet, with a more varied cast of supporting actors and a director with a keen sense of the comedy-horror possibilities, is a tantalising prospect. If Roberts can entertain and occasionally delight in an unprepossessing black box of a fringe venue with nothing but a lamp, a tape recorder, a chair and a red sock to help him, he’s clearly setting off on the right foot.