Joseph Morpurgo has earned a reputation for being both a crowd pleaser and a comedian’s comedian with his inventive, high-concept multimedia shows.
Comparing Hammerhead to other shows of its species, Morpurgo’s show is leagues above.
We enter at ‘THE END’. Morpurgo’s character has just finished his coup de theatre – a nine hour long adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – and is here for a post-show Q&A. Audience members are given question-cards. Morpurgo answers with affected pride, using projections, props, and effects to describe the increasingly ridiculous Frankenstein production.
Inevitably, we begin to see the cracks in his confidence: questioners are made to point out the bad reviews, the financial losses, the deaths. All this builds to a cacophony of running gags until, with characteristic wit, we are left with more of a beginning than an ending. The only downside of this wry conclusion is that, as a friend said to me, you feel cheated out of giving Morpurgo a standing ovation.
Morpurgo’s monster was by turns dramatic and ridiculous, taking us from theatrical obsession and family feuds to bizarre powerpoint presentations and almost slapstick silliness. Some of the most enjoyable moments were the shows-within-the-show: clips of the actor’s prompt screens, weird diversions to GCSE exam papers, and garish original songs (I would happily buy a CD of Morpurgo’s crowdfunded musical, Tim Shipman: Chartered Surveyor). The whole production is incredibly technically ambitious. There are more light, sound, and screen cues than I’ve ever seen before in a comedy show, and this ambition pays off. At one point his bombastic character confirms the rumours that he cues his own effects using sensors on his body: the gag and its following demonstration is met to approving laughs, but honestly, the tech is so slick that you can almost believe he is telling the truth.
Yet there were moments that were less impressive. The character’s insistent desire to stick to the Q&A format was repeated without enough variation, and, though banality was part of its humour, there were too many call-backs to the same lovesick audience member to be met with much amusement. Further, the overlying juxtaposition of the Frankenstein story and Morpurgo’s own comedy show doesn’t quite gel. I was looking forward to an epiphany – a reveal where Morpurgo would reference the analogy and bring it to a climax – but it didn’t happen. The same feeling is true of Morpurgo’s innocuous title. Hammerhead? It’s like he is pointing at something but doesn’t give the audience quite enough to understand it. (Hammerhead because it’s oddly shaped? Are Hammerheads the Frankenstein’s monster of sharks? Why sharks? Am I meant to know?) With the cleverness that Morpurgo displays in his show, I have no doubt that reasons could be found. Just a few moments devoted to clinching these connections - stitching all those pieces together - would create an awe-inspiring beast.
Comparing Hammerhead to other shows of its species, Morpurgo’s show is leagues above: it is a beautifully crafted, energetic, and supremely entertaining specimen. But there is something about it which is slightly wonky, something which prevents it from being truly magnificent. Like a shark with a hammer shaped head, I suppose.