Clues that Comedian Dies In The Middle of Joke would not be a typical show appeared early. I was led to a stool clustered round one of many small tables by Ross Sutherland, writer and performer, and there found a peroxide wig and an enigmatic instruction to put the wig on and be prepared to interject at a given point.
The set-up of the play needs some explanation, if only so future audiences can avoid the confusion experienced when I was there. The year is 1983 and the scene is the Crack-Me-Up Comedy Lounge in a reconstruction of the moments before the murder of Joe ‘Pops’ Pooley. There are seven near-identical reconstructions in total and between each one the audience moves round the room from table to table. At each place on the table there is a menu card with character details and instructions for interactions; one person from each table also has the opportunity to play Pops himself, reading from an autocue. Essentially imagine a cross between a team-building murder mystery weekend and an improv show, and you’ve pretty much got Comedian Dies. Explaining all this takes an uncomfortably long ten minutes at the start of the show.
How enjoyable the remaining 50 minutes are depends largely on the acting skills of your fellow audience members. This is of course the curse of interactive theatre: if you’re fortunate enough to see the play with a bunch of people who can follow what's going on and play their part with gusto then it’s very entertaining, if not then by the end of the show you may be wishing you were the unfortunate Pops. At the Edinburgh Fringe, where you’re never more than five feet from a thesp, you’ve got a good chance of finding yourself with the former. Even so there were moments when the play stalled as those playing the comedian struggled to follow the autocue.
The play’s pace suffered from the repetition caused by the seven reconstructions. Although the ending of each was slightly different, as we moved closer to the point of death, too much of the play was Pop’s script repeated over and over. The script was deliberately cringe-worthy recalling a sort of lacklustre Bernard Manning and, although that was amusing at first, by the fifth or so retelling it began to grate. There was a lack of narrative urgency and the end, when reached, was more of a whimper than a bang.
Whether or not you enjoy this depends largely on your attitude towards interactive theatre. This is not a show for wall-flowers, nor for those who feel they’ve only got their money’s worth if they see the actor doing plenty of acting - Sutherland is on stage for less than a quarter of the show. Instead, go in with an open mind and your best heckles prepared, and enjoy the sort of kooky off-beat theatre for which the Fringe is famous.