One of the hardest things for any actor to do is surely to act like they're not acting, to pretend that they are a 'real person' rather than a performer or artist creating make-believe in the very show people have paid to see. If successful, the question then becomes how long they can convince a sceptical and perhaps fidgety audience before giving the game away.
The self-penned Laughing Matter is a brave departure for the refreshingly inventive End of Moving Walkway theatre company, whose brilliant revivals of plays over the last couple of years had seemed its stock in trade. This 'verbatim' original work claims to use the actual recorded words of a now-deceased father and his son, James, who is struggling to come to terms with his dad's recent death. It is co-authored by EMW's artistic director Paul Lichtenstern and James Thomson, who purportedly plays himself opposite his father, a part ably spoken and acted by another of the company's familiar faces, Keith Hill. Their play amusingly but at times irritatingly revels in teasing the audience about the line between representing the truth and telling porkies.
Only an hour and a quarter long, this experiment in subverting theatrical conventions tries to pack too much in. It is actually three plays in one: first, an absorbing, angst-ridden monologue by James about his bereavement, his relationship with his father and, while he's at it, mankind's infinitesimal place in the universe. He's helped by Richard Williamson's video of the planets and space behind him on a huge screen, plus a spine-tingling soundtrack. Then comes the meat of the play, scenes of 'actual' dialogue between the argumentative James and his under-appreciated dad. Both wear an earpiece piped with the recordings that James secretly made when his dad was alive, in order to repeat and act out the words they hear. The final segment contains the big reveal, with fifteen or so minutes of discussion about the truthfulness of the staging we've just seen. But by drawing attention to some theatrical tricks, our suspension of disbelief flies out of the window and with it some of this 'true' story's emotional power.
Part of the problem is that the denouement isn't as much of a surprise as the crew seem to think it is. I'd prefer to have seen more of the 'real' father and son scenes, as they offered some touching and heartbreaking insights into male family relations framed by the context of the father's sad passing. Both actors are at their best when performing these 'real life' scenes as opposed to during the meta-theatrical stuff that bookends the play, entertaining as it is. Sound designer Anna Clock's recording sounds of deliberately variable quality nicely capture James' re-winding, forwarding, pausing and obsessively re-playing the recordings that we see played out on stage.
When responding to the play as a sad true story, it's easy to be sympathetic and forgive less-than-perfect line delivery and acting. The trouble is that when the audience finds out it may have been conned, there's a danger of this sympathy evaporating. I left the experience chuckling at Laughing Matter's somewhat over-egged clever and self-referential wit, but not quite as moved as I'd hoped. Still, as usual End of Moving Walkway are brimming with ideas and it will be interesting to see what they come up with next.