REVIEW BY RORY ANDREWS
Kat Sandler’s Punch-Up extracts comedy from failure, humour from suicidal depression, and slapstick from an active hostage crisis. This is comedy of the dark persuasion, so it’s no wonder that when Punch-Up was first staged at The Highland Arts Theatre two years ago, some theatre-goers left offended. It turns out some Cape Breton Baby Boomers have a hard time finding the inherent comedy in chaining somebody up in your basement.
Which is why I was surprised to see it being remounted, and even more surprised to see a full house on opening night. Two years ago, I sat in the front row, on the left hand side of the theatre. On Wednesday, I had balcony seating because I bought my tickets late. It’s a sign of how far The Highland Arts Theatre has come, and the changing and evolving tastes of the Cape Breton audience.
And now, onto the review:
Punch-Up is precisely what local theatre is meant for. A small production, with the luxury to offend and venture into uncomfortable territory, unburdened from the billion dollar shackles of a Hollywood industry too hesitant to make jokes about losing your hand to a bread slicer. Kat Sandler’s dark comedy is willing to make light of the pathetic, and realize that failure is in some ways the most honest aspect of being human.
The play itself is about an hour long, which is about the average length of time between a joke and a full-blown production. The narrative is certainly set up as a joke: The funniest man alive (Nicholas Porteous) tries to help the most pathetic guy ever (Wesley Colford) make the saddest girl in the world (Hilary Scott) laugh, or she’ll kill herself. As far as exposition goes, it really doesn’t get more condensed than that. You have your characters, your conflict, and your stakes all in one sentence. How economical!
Even though the play is short, it probably has as many lines as a full blown musical production. The delivery is lightning fast, with the chemistry between the actors being immediately apparent. Porteous and Colford bounce off each other like an Olympic ping-pong match, alternating between verbal and physical comedy on a switch. Hilary Scott delivers an endearing performance as the saddest girl alive, dropping her regular acting tools of springs in her feet and captivating smirk for smeared eyeliner and a drinking habit. It really is a luxury to regularly attend the same local theatre, and see actors take on such varying roles and see aspects of their talent you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Director Kristen Gregor makes brilliant use of The HAT’s interior design, as we meet Brenda, the saddest girl alive, stepping over the balcony about to commit suicide upon the stage below. The play actually opens with one of the most pathetic stand-up routines I’ve ever seen, and the backdrop of the curtain and the repartee between Pat (Porteaous) and his stage manager blends the reality of the theatre with the narrative on stage. The most impressive aspect of the production is the pace, with the only pauses in action being deliberate for dramatic tension, or comedic effect.
Past the pathetic, hilarious darkness, Punch-Up is committed to asking big questions concerning comedy, what is funny, and why some people just aren’t funny? Why are sad things or sudden bouts of unexpected violence funny? As you’re laughing at the fact that Duncan (Colford) is a bread inspector having an existential crisis about robots taking his bread career away, you might just ask yourself “Why am I laughing?”
Or you might not. In the end, it’s just funny.