Tom Neenan appears to be making his way through the genres with his one-man/many characters shows: Edwardian ghost story in 2014, and 1950s-styled British science fiction thriller last year. In 2016, with Vaudeville, Neenan shifts back to horror, but specifically the portmanteau horror films in which several tales were linked together for a greater effect, a format made famous by the likes of
Great to see his writing mature, with a greater focus on characters which are increasingly more than just flat jokes.
Entering the room, which has been plunged into total darkness, Neenan – allegedly celebrating his birthday all on his lonesome – is the security guard working in the old Vaudeville Theatre. He’s somewhat startled to suddenly find himself with an audience, and once it becomes clear that we’ve paid money (well, except for us reviewers) and are not intending to leave, Neenan decides to share some of the more famous stories about the place.
The first focuses on a “magician, ventriloquist and weirdo” who’s dummy Mr Nibbles appears to have a murderous mind of its own, especially when it comes to getting rid of a rival for the affections of a beautiful singer called Doreen. This is followed by the tale of the celebrated actor who murders a horrendous theatre critic in order to safely perform his one-man production of Hamlet without fear of her scorn and ridicule. Finally, there’s the tale of young wannabe ballet dancer Kelly, who unwittingly makes a deal with the devil, which of course doesn’t end well for her.
On their own, each of the stories works well, although the final one is arguably lower-key than you might expect, in terms of its wit and twist. But Neenan knows his subject well – in the best portmanteau horror films, the true climax is actually the final twist in the wrap-around narrative which, on this occasion, puts the audience – us – in a very different light.
Once again Neenan performs all of the characters in the stories, each precisely focused around a particular accent, posture, character quirk or even their location on the stage. He impressively switches from one character to another, having conversations with himself that even on occasions include off-hand discussions about mistakes he’s made in performing his own script.
Talking of the script, while there are still plenty of laughs to be had in Neenan’s much-loved wordplay and self-conscious recognition of the limits of the staging, the use of this kind of material is much more restrained – and, therefore, all the more effective. Even with Noonan, you can have too much of a good thing; it’s great to see his writing mature, with a greater focus on characters which – though not exactly drawn in three dimensions – are increasingly more than just flat jokes.