Review: Rachel Mars, Camden People's Theatre

Great comedy minds clearly think alike. Last autumn Brian Logan, critic and co-director of the Camden People's Theatre, and myself both separately came up with the idea of press-ganging the phrase Beyond The Joke. My fiendish plan was to use it as a title for a website which takes mainstream analysis of comedy a little further than it has been before. His idea was to use it as the name of a festival looking at the current cross-fertilisation between comedy and theatre, with various shows and talks exploring the way the two disciplines rub together. And now, Mr Logan, we finally meet...

The flagpole of CPT's festival is Rachel Mars' piece, The Way You Tell Them. I was hoping this would have been more of a stand-up show, or at least a storytelling show in the vein of Daniel Kitson, who really is the master of the genre-blur. In truth it is less stand-up, more of a theatrical monologue about "compulsion, control and responsibility", using scripted quips to examine the way humour is used and abused in society.

Mars, who grew up surrounded by a jocular Jewish family, uses her background to create the show's spine. Her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who died shortly before she was born, was a great gagsmith, she explains. She recounts one of his supposed stonkers about making the sound of a cork coming out of a bottle which literally used to make his audience in the synagogue wet themselves. No threat to Woody Allen, methinks, but as they say in comedy, maybe you had to be there at the time. There is, however, a more convincingly comical anecdote about her grandfather's funeral, when the lid nearly came off the coffin. Though as Mars points out, it is all about perspective. His widow was gutted, his son-in-law found it hilarious.

This is where things become interesting. It is not just about how we laugh, or how we might obtain permission to laugh. It is whether laughter makes a joke acceptable. This is a pretty relevant notion in a world where people still buy Roy Chubby Brown DVDs, but Mars steers clear of an explicit critique of contemporary comedy, instead illustrating her thesis – this does have the feel of a lecture at times – with a recurring story of a medical trial in which nearly all the patients died. Moving at one point, but comical when overlaid with flatulent interruptions. But does our laughter legitimise the bad taste sound effects? (for a disturbing mirror-image of her idea Mars should look at this haunting clip of a Bob Monkhouse routine here with the laughter surgically removed). 

Along the way Mars dips briefly in and out of other ideas. There is an unexplained homage to prankster/surrealist Andy Kaufman and elsewhere I was hauled out of the audience myself to take part in a clownish song-and-dance routine which led nowhere but featured a nice red umbrella. Some later proceedings take on a more portentous tone as she plays a taped account of the giggles that greeted news of the atom bomb being dropped, or, in one of the running themes of the monologue, she re-enacts her grandfather's death from a pulmonary embolism via the art of mime.

This is both a very right and a very wrong show for a season about theatre and comedy. It is certainly funny in parts, but it raises far deeper questions about whether we are ever "only joking" than can be answered in 60 minutes. Mars concludes by donning the wolf suit which she wears as a kind of cloak of invisibility during her stand-up gigs. Like a lot of this show, it prompts a bit of thought and a wry smile rather than a help-nurse-my-sides belly laugh.

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