The sweet, funny and eminently-likeable Rachel Mars has created an undeniably charming piece of “I-don’t-know-what” for the Camden People’s Theatre’s Beyond the Joke festival. It’s also somewhat perplexing. Elements of stand-up comedy, character monologue and autobiographical memoir don’t so much weave through this show as lurch, uncontrolled. In her defence, I believe Ms. Mars actually adhered very faithfully to the festival’s tagline: “exploring the point where stand-up and theatre collide.” Haphazard debris is precisely what we get with The Way You Tell Them, and the writer seems to have left the post-collision mess wholly intact.
And she’s right to do so. This approach is entirely in the spirit of a festival devoted to the abandonment of conventional genre. Maybe I’m too dependent on labels, considering I’m still trying to define the show. It certainly isn’t a play, since the first thing Mars did – very successfully – was talk directly to the audience about the venue, the space, her show and herself. Neither is it a stand-up show, although she is certainly engaging enough to pull off a chatty set in the style of Sarah Millican. What can I call it, then? ‘Collision’ sounds too experimental, too exciting.
What it felt most in keeping with was a seminar. Unfortunately, the word ‘seminar’ implies humourlessness, maybe even boredom, neither of which is fair to Mars, who has a warm appealing presence as a performer. Yet in most practical aspects – the analyses, the projections, the questions thrown out at the class – it really was closer to a seminar than a piece of entertainment. Not that there weren’t big laughs, which there were, or that she didn’t capture my imagination, which she did. In fact, I sort of wish we were friends. She seems lovely.
I suspect my lack of coherent argument thus far is down to the issue of me liking the performer more than the performance. Debating with myself as to which matters more, I can’t help but think of those old Hollywood tales of Marilyn Monroe, who was an absolute nightmare on the set of Some Like it Hot, but everyone put up with it because what ended up on the film was so magical. Though, that said, if Mars was a diva, her show might contain more of the divine.
Structurally, there are some pleasing balances and recurrences, suggesting – infuriatingly – that Mars did attempt to organise the debris somewhat. She spends ten minutes or so setting up her onstage persona, and then a further ten minutes deftly deconstructing it. Her section on “de-committing” from a statement, which she argues makes it possible for a comic to say pretty much anything they want, is a neat observation that gets re-used to increasingly satisfying effect once she begins saying pretty much anything she wants. There is one really profound moment when she re-plays a short video of a man emotionally describing his partner’s death from AIDS – a video we have already seen – but with an added comedy soundtrack. It’s truly unexpected, unlike anything else up to this point, and extraordinarily effective, perhaps because, instead of explaining why people feel the need to use comedy as a defence mechanism or to diffuse upsetting situations, she simply does it. She pushes her argument to its logical extreme, sits back in her chair and watches as we guiltily chuckle or squirm uncomfortably.
The way Mars tells them is most like the way of your quirky friend from college who makes everyone laugh in the common room. Clever, amusing and endearingly informal. She explains that she gave comedy a try because people kept saying to her, “You’re so funny, you should do stand-up.” She signed up to a class, hoping to hear the same from the teacher, but found that there was a “little bit more to it” than just being funny to your friends. In many ways, her show amused and informed me, but in terms of finesse and showmanship, I found that I wanted a “little bit more” too.