In Robin Hooper’s Broken Lad, staged in the Arcola Theatre’s new outdoor venue, a fading stand-up comedian finds himself at the centre of problems that he’s mostly responsible for. Unfortunately, in writing a play about a comedian, Hooper seems to have forgotten to make it funny.
The central action of Broken Lad takes place over one evening in a room above a pub – the same pub in which Phil (Patrick Brennan) hopes to make his comeback as a stand-up comedian. Assisting him is old friend Ned (Adrian McLoughlin), a kindly gent with a lingering crush on Phil and access to an iPad full of dating apps.
Downstairs is Josh (Dave Perry) and his girlfriend Ria (Yasmin Paige), each of them harbouring a difficult relationship to Phil. To round things off, Phil’s ex-wife Liz (Carolyn Backhouse) is here to watch the show, complicating matters for the already flighty Phil and causing him to get cold feet about the gig, even as he finds himself homeless, jobless and dumped by his manager.
The premise feels distinctly old-fashioned – like a play from the 90s, all about the human condition. Sadly, Hooper doesn’t find anything interesting to say about these characters or the world they inhabit. The dialogue is overwrought with emotion, with endless exposition about the characters’ pasts threatening to overwhelm the play. It lacks flow, the pace fluctuating wildly without control.
And of course, the most egregious sin – how can a play about a stand-up comedian be so unfunny? The jokes we hear (mostly from Phil and his aspiring son Josh) almost never land, easy one-liners that are either cliched or simply lacking a punchline. Nothing interesting is pointed out about the state of the entertainment industry, and though the play purports to be about ‘masculinity and virility in distress,’ it fails to delve deep enough into the issue to make us care about the characters.
Phil, in particular, is the architect of his own destruction, consistently trying to flee in the face of adversity. The thing is, the character is so unlikeable that we wish he really would leave. Patrick Brennan fails to imbue the character with any warmth, creating a cruel and pitiful man that simply isn’t enjoyable to watch. Similarly, the character of Ria (and to a lesser extent, Liz) exists purely as an agent of chaos, lying and manipulating with seemingly no real remorse.
The female characters are extremely underserved in this piece – it’s uncomfortable to watch them act as catalysts for the problems faced by the men in the piece, with so little substance underneath. Yasmin Paige looks uncomfortable herself in the role, never finding a real truth in her scenes, while Carolyn Backhouse manages to rise above the material and give the play a much needed boost of energy in her brief scenes.
Dave Perry is the most enjoyable, a cheeky chappy who brightens the stage whenever he appears, and Adrian McLoughlin turns in a warm performance as Ned, though he did seem to struggle with his lines on more than one occasion.
The direction was lacklustre and uninspired, never finding the drama or the comedy that the play’s looking for. The decision to stage the show’s only stand-up scene with Phil behind a pane of glass, facing away from the audience, was particularly baffling – a nearly three minute scene where the audience could barely see or hear what was going on.
The set, similarly, felt half-baked – I couldn’t have told you it was supposed to be a room above a pub until the characters did. The whole thing felt like it hadn’t been thought about enough, and perhaps under-rehearsed – there was no spark of excitement or enjoyment running through the play, just a drudging misery-fest about characters with almost no redeeming qualities.
Ultimately Broken Lad suffers from a lack of clear direction or vision. The themes and setting, if explored in more depth, could be interesting and exciting. Unfortunately, the staleness of the piece makes it difficult for us to care.
Broken Lad is at The Arcola (Outside) until 6th November 2021.
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