‘The theatre,’ writes the poet Christopher Reid, ‘is a big, ramshackle, blindly trundling machine. / with bits falling off it, it clatters through the generations, / more wasteful of lives than a losing army. / You fed it your love, and it gave you too little in return.’
It is a brave man who writes new comedy for the Oxford stage. First, you have to make sure that your audience will actually laugh. Then, even when they do laugh, you have to make sure that they don’t feel guilty about it. You have to entertain them and stimulate them. If you don’t, all your loving care and painstaking attention to detail will be summarily dismissed. There are few trades crueller than student theatre, and hundreds of hours of tender labour are crushed beneath its wheels. You feed it your love, and all too often it gives you too little in return.
Kudos, then, to Tom Garton for taking the beast head on. His new play Fourtissimo purports to be a comic ‘laboratory-culture examination of what it is to be a modern man.’ Into the Petri dish go a Roman Catholic priest in love with stripper, a politician with hidden sexual depths, a lawyer in a dangerously-long-term relationship and a maniacal journalist who thinks he may be Byron, or at least Don Juan. They all live in the priest’s flat, and discuss their trials and antics with the opposite sex in four scenes.
This has all the ingredients of a sitcom – even the Beautiful South soundtrack. And it is, to all intents and purposes, a sitcom. Garton is forthright: he wants to entertain his audience. Will he? Quite possibly. The four actors play their subverted stereotypes well enough, and the script definitely has its moments, even if both performance and writing are short on panache. The sardonic David, played by Alex Jeffery, gets teed up for all the best lines, but the hero of the piece is Rhys Bevan’s Jacob, the shy priest groping blindly for faith and nipple tassels. I did not see enough of journo John – ‘half demented sex-pest, half romantic poet’ – to form a useful impression, and his unknown quantity will be central to the play’s success or smarting failure.
But Fourtissimo is also meant to be thought-provoking when the laughter stops. All four characters do jobs that would have guaranteed them success and influence in another time and another place, but they are all in their various ways pathetic failures. Especially in their relationships with the other half of humanity. Women come to symbolise everything these four men do not have but wish they did have. In the end, though, Fourtissimo does not seem to cast a piercing light on the soul of the twenty-first century man. It has its thoughtful moments, but they are usually defused within seconds by Garton’s pervasive irony. This is philosophy of the Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps school. Fourtissimo should provide a good evening’s amusement, though, and Garton will write better scripts in years to come.
Verdict: My Oxford Family
Fourtissimo is on at the Burton Taylor from Tuesday to Saturday of 6th Week at 9.30pm.