The Highland Arts Theatre’s production of Kat Sandler’s Punch Up is an achingly funny, foul-mouthed modern fairie tale: a questing knight sees a princess in a high tower and vows to break the curse she suffers under and enlists the aid of a wizard to achieve his goal.
Or in this case, Duncan, “The Most Pathetic Man that Ever Existed”, tells Brenda, “The Saddest Girl in the World”, not to leap to her death until he has a chance to make her laugh once more, and proceeds to kidnap, Pat, “The Funniest Man Alive”, to teach him to be hilarious.
As Pat discovers, it’s an entirely uphill battle: the hapless Duncan would have an easier time slaying your average dragon than the most giggle prone comedy club audience.
Director Kristen Gregor has directed this farcical fable at lightning speed with well-choreographed physical comedy to accompany the verbal wordplay (including a clever use by playwright Sandler of the classic Abbot and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?”).
Gregor also directed HAT’s very funny production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore in November, a much darker comedy. This production has an affinity to The Pillowman, another work by Inishmore playwright, Martin McDonagh, recently staged at the Boardmore Theatre. As Pillowman asked its audience to ponder the meaning and consequences of storytelling, Punch Up, in a lighter way, sheds some light on the roots of comedy and why we need it in our lives.
Nick Porteous, as Pat, is completely believable as the stand up comedian, “Pat”: he’s just that profanely angry from the get-go. He’s a coiled spring of fury at being left in the show business dust by his more successful ex-wife. Porteous has a generous portion of laugh lines that he adroitly nails every time but what I liked about his performance was how, as essentially the straight man and reality anchor for two outsized characters, how he listened and reacted to the insanity around him.
Then there is Wesley Colford as “Duncan”, convinced he will be replaced by a robot as a bakery bread inspector, who can’t find pants that will fit him, and is cursed with a kind of demented optimism. Colford’s character could be Criminal Minds creepy but he gives Duncan a boyish charm that instantly wins the audience over to his side.
Hilary Scott, as “Brenda”, had the toughest acting job since for the most of the time she is limited to a big arm chair in a small side set recounting her doleful life of deadly love. But even in a confined space, Scott gave a kinetic, engaging performance: with her big sad eyes (like those kitschy 80’s paintings) and lightning fast emotional U-turns, she made Brenda a real person. Some of Brenda’s woes were so over the top I wasn’t sure if we the audience were supposed to be laughing, but the “punchline” to that list, as delivered by Scott, was a real heartbreaker.
Along with keeping the pace zipping along, director Gregor showed an attention to production details, like Brenda’s Fisher-Price cassette recorder for her suicide note and Duncan’s absurdly thin trouser belt, that are rarely noticed by the audience (except when they are done wrong) but add depth to the particular character. She made her cast a finely tuned ensemble, delivering the laughs while respecting the deeper concerns of Sandler’s script.
I attended opening night, Wednesday, February 11, and there were at least sixty or so people in attendance; not bad for an icy winter weeknight with a hockey game up the street. Sadly, most of the audience left after the play and missed a dynamic musical solo set by the great Carmen Townsend. Giving it her all to a handful of very appreciative fans, she offered a selection of her own tunes and some covers, including a few she rarely plays with her band.
“Punch Up” runs nightly at 8 pm until Sunday, February 15, at the Highland Arts Theatre, Bentick Street, Sydney, Tickets at $15 at the door and, because liquor (including a very nice rum punch) is served during the performance, admission is restricted to those 19 years and older. There is very strong language but nothing you haven’t heard from a neighbour shovelling their driveway.
The list of bands for the run is below. So see the play, stay for the tunes.
AFTER SHOW BAND SCHEDULE:
February 13: The Novemberists
February 14: The Jaynes
February 15: John Gill & Redmond MacDougall