The After-Dinner Joke

The After-Dinner Joke doesn’t quite land. Caryl Churchill’s made-for-TV script does this stage production no favours, despite some attempts to lampoon the politics of charity and development. Lukewarm caricatures and tiresome repetition leave us hungry for political satire that bites back. Taxi!

You’d need real verve to liven this script up

Dozens of sketches recur in this early work of Churchill’s, exploring the politics of charity and development until they gradually coalesce into a hostage situation. The punchline? All charity is political. Perhaps it hit harder in the 70s, but now you’d find more radicalism in an Instagram infographic. Political calibre aside, the script offers a simple take on the slippery language of development. “The slums” become “the redevelopment area,” and countries are neither “poor” nor “underdeveloped” but “developing.” And let’s hope the poor and needy say “thank you!”.

You’d need real verve to liven this script up, but sometimes the cast seem only to be going through the motions. Kaycee Renee Wilson draws the short straw with her roles, but her MAGA paranoia gets the message across with a nasal American ring. Cameron Ledingham’s confident stage presence as a snooty Tory MP is classic parody of the British class system - just listen to the breathy way he pronounces “charity,” darling! Aid-worker Selby (Irena Kumunjer) proves her worth in a diatribe on the politics of coffee, and Michael Brown strikes a comically tender note with his beloved pet snake, but both could do more to convince us of their respective passions: apolitical charity and politically-homeless boa constrictors.

That said, Alisdair Halkett brings a refreshing charisma by saying more with his facial expressions than others do with words. His ease on stage – “I mean, they’re like dying, man” – makes for the best humour of the show.

Part of the issue is Churchill’s made-for-TV script. Seamless TV transitions become clunky and very rarely do they pay off. Is it worth rearranging the set just for the same characters to rehash old jokes? The I’m a Celeb sketch offers little in the way of political commentary or plot, and the incongruity of Renee Wilson’s thief until her final speech is too little, too late. Perhaps there is a need for some reduction or at least reorganisation of the script. One thing I cannot forgive, however, is a fake custard pie to the face.

The inheritors of The After-Dinner Joke’s political satire - Spitting Image, Yes Minister - run on caricatures. No need to hold back! Ditching the naturalism and relishing the absurdity of the characters would give this satire more edge. Come closer to the audience (literally and figuratively) and let us in on the joke.

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Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this review has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
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Performances

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The Blurb

'Are you getting political?' The After-Dinner Joke is a kaleidoscope of chaos that follows a well-meaning woman’s journey down the rabbit hole of trials and tribulations of charity work. Thanks to a well-timed hurricane, Selby is able to fulfil her duty in finding a home for the charity money, though she finds this more complicated than she expected. Originally aired in 1978 as part of BBC’s Play for Today series, Caryl Churchill’s satire is as relevant today as it was then. Times change: People do not.

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