It goes without saying that there’s a fine, fine line between comedy and tragedy — between triumph and disaster — and it’s a tightrope that comedians walk night after night. In Zoe Coombs Marr’s Is This Thing On? we follow the life and career of Brianna, a stand-up comedian, through five different nights on the same stage, as she’s played by five different women.
In chronological order (although all five intersect at various points and aren’t performed chronologically), there’s Madeleine Benson as the Brianna at her first ever open mic night, Genevieve Giuffre as the Brianna just starting out in stand-up as she’s studying to be a veterinarian, Nat Randall as the vet school drop-out Brianna starting to develop her own style, Susan Prior as the Brianna who cracks after years of pushing the same material uphill, and Fiona Press, as the Brianna returning to stand-up years after her breakdown.
It’s Prior who does most of the heavy lifting, performing the fateful night when her act finally goes wrong in a stand-up act that turns into an existential crisis. Taken over by the terror of comedy falling flat and the realisation that the headliner (her friend who’s achieved massive success on TV) won’t be showing up, things get ugly. We’ve all seen a comedian go into panic mode — the voice and the body language becomes deafeningly loud and the gags are punched out so abruptly that they become painfully unfunny. The best comedians bring as much of themselves onstage as they possibly can — the good, the bad and the ugly — but when Prior brings everything difficult that Brianna is currently dealing with onstage, it’s a recipe for disaster.
The rest of the cast get their moments in the spotlight as well. Benson is charmingly naive and optimistic, even as she delivers the jokes she just couldn’t find segues for off a sheet of crumpled paper. Giuffre is full of nervous energy, trialling new material as she starts to realise that comedy might just be for her. Randall is the slightly more confident version of Giuffre’s Brianna and gets her big “coming out” act, where she tells an audience, for the first time, that she’s a lesbian (after Giuffre delivers a chunk of “not being able to find the right man” material). She then relishes the opportunity to deliver some material that’s been holding back for years, including a sequence of vulgar but brilliant puns about fisting. Press delivers the calmest and most comfortable set, finally able to bring herself back after the disaster years earlier. Comedy is no longer the dangerous addiction it once was, but an old friend she happily reunites with.
With co-director Kit Brookman, Coombs Marr makes her script sing. An older Brianna’s interaction with her younger self could easily be a cringe-worthy moment, but Brookman and Coombs Marr use these interactions to demonstrate her changing attitude — even when the material stays the same.
The actors all play off the audience confidently, but the script does lock them in from more than some cursory audience participation (although you still might want to avoid the front row if that makes you nervous). The script itself is hilarious — both in the good comedy and in the well-executed comedy failure — and perfectly crafted, with every piece of narrative from the five performances slotting into place.
While none of the actors taking on the role try to emulate each other’s vocal or physical traits, there’s a distinctive energy and approach to the material (which is often a slightly altered riff covering the same ground) that speaks to where Brianna is, right at that point in her life. It also reveals her hypocrisies (Prior talks about how dreadful comedy songs are but Giuffre enthusiastically launches into one) and the way she defines and redefines her identity as a comedian and a woman over the course of her life.
In Coombs Marr’s writers notes, she describes the play as a “love story between a comic and her audience”, but it’s probably better understood as a love story between a comic and the art of stand-up. While eliciting a laugh is the end goal of stand-up, it seems that Brianna isn’t just seeking the validation of a laugh, but that she’s in love with creating comedy and the comedy room, and everything that it represents. But it certainly is a love story — one that turns sour and then takes years of separation to repair.
Belvoir’s artistic director Ralph Myers has designed the perfect dodgy comedy room, complete with hideously patterned carpet, pokie machines and a backdrop featuring a brick wall (covering up a real brick wall). You can almost smell the cigarette smoke wafting from the pokies, just offstage, and the stale beer in the air. In fact, given how immersive the set is, it’s almost a shame that you can’t. His costumes are just as good, with all five women wearing a lame, ironic comedy t-shirt (I really hope that Prior’s Nickelback t-shirt was ironic).
With Is This Thing On? downstairs and The Glass Menagerie upstairs, Belvoir is packed with undeniably brilliant theatre. After mixed success with some theatrical experiments earlier this year, Belvoir has well and truly hit its stride.
Featured image: Susan Prior in Is This Thing On?. Photography by Brett Boardman.