As I walk into St. Peter’s JCR on a Tuesday evening, I have no idea what to expect from Mercury Theatre Productions’ An Unexpected Visitor. Comedy is difficult to get right – the timing, pacing, and dynamic all have to be perfect, and unfortunately they are the areas where this production fell short.
The narrative follows a group of protesters as they chair a meeting, expecting an undercover informant to share crucial details about an upcoming protest. One of the greatest strengths of the show is that it is set in the same location as its performance venue, which allows for an incredibly intimate and immersive setting. This immersion was maintained through audience interaction, including getting one audience member to minute the meeting which was an effective running joke throughout. Standout performances from Tommy Hurst as the underappreciated secretary Billy and Harry Berry as the unexpected visitor Jake must be mentioned, with Hurst’s comedic timing and dialogue making up for failings elsewhere.
Credit must also be given to Hamish Venters for a particularly well-acted meltdown aimed at Charly (Anna Jones), with the insult ‘walrus-fucking shit’ being a highlight of the evening. Georgia Rose Byrne, playing Sam, also effectively established the illusion of a meeting at the beginning by introducing audience members as part of the protesters’ group (and interacting with latecomers to extend a joke). In these specific moments, the potential of this show shined, and it is clear that the play could be a highly effective and hilarious piece.
Yet these perks couldn’t quite make up for the show’s downfalls, of which there were several. Jokes in general were dragged out for slightly too long, to the point where all humour they originally brought to the show was lost. The aforementioned meltdown from Eli, for example, was hilarious the first time – after sitting through the same joke for what felt like ten minutes, though, my original reaction wasn’t the same as that with which I left the ‘theatre’. The actors’ nerves were also very clear, with a few stumbles costing momentum, though opening night in an unconventional space makes this understandable.
Perhaps the main failing of the production, however, was the plot, which I only understand from having read the description on the Facebook event. Had the play been aiming to confuse its audience, this would be one of its greatest successes, though as it is branded as a ‘light-hearted and immersive piece’, I get the impression this was not meant to be the case. Much like its few jokes, the piece spent far too long on its exposition – which ultimately seems like wasted time when the narrative is so unclear throughout. Jake said it best halfway through the play: “I must admit, I’m really quite confused.” This ended up being the most relatably comic line of the night.
The piece is a perfectly acceptable first draft, and the ability to adapt to unique spaces is a great strength of Blanc’s writing and direction. However, the show sadly falls short in all of the areas that matter in a comedy, and so I can’t recommend seeing this show until it goes through another stage of redrafting.