Thursday 16 November 2023

Theatre review: Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen

I don't really go to stand-up comedy (as with most things, going to All The Theatre leaves no time or money for that,) but I know a big trend in recent years has been for comedy shows that delve not only into the personal, but into the downright traumatic. Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen is a play written in the style of a stand-up special, rather than an actual stand-up special, but its mix of rapid-fire gags with something a bit darker and more heartfelt probably wouldn't feel too out of place at the Edinburgh Festival (where it was, in fact, first seen before transferring to the Bush.) Marcelo Dos Santos writes the monologue, but it's Samuel Barnett who plays the unnamed gay Comedian, whose sexual preference is "passive aggressive," and who greets us on stage by announcing he's going to kill his boyfriend.

So we get the background story to The Comedian getting to his mid-thirties without ever having had a serious relationship, but spending a lot of his time on The Dating App which, like the main characters, he prefers not to name. When he meets The American, he begins an actual, very slow-moving but genuine relationship, and while he enjoys the romance with a man who looks like a real-life Disney Prince, he keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop. And when it does it's in bizarre fashion, as The American has a serious medical condition that's not only unusual, but particularly surreal in someone who's dating a stand-up comedian.

On one level we have this story of the romance with The American, while on another we have an exploration of what makes someone choose a career in comedy: Whether as a way of processing his father's death; to distract himself from the constant panicking pessimism and depression that gives the play its title; or through the need to make people laugh and pay attention to him. It's the latter need that makes him worry about making The American laugh so hard he kills him, while simultaneously giving him the compulsion to try and see what happens.

This is a lot of fun: Dos Santos has clocked that, even though it's not an actual stand-up performance, the setting means the audience will have certain expectations, and there's a great supply of gags (I liked the one about holding his father's wake in a Wetherspoon's so he could die the way he lived, "sad and a bit racist.") Barnett is in some ways playing to type as a bundle of neuroses, in others playing against it with a character who wants to put all of them out in public and demands recognition. But as well as the character exploration, Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen feels like a look behind the scenes at comedy as well.

So the evening feels less like the finished performance, more like The Comedian is building and fine-tuning a set. Those supporting characters he does give a name to, he tends to rename after a while to a pseudonym he likes better, reminding us that even within the reality of the play, he's not an entirely reliable narrator, chopping and changing the story to what sounds funniest or most appropriate. Matthew Xia's production has a conceit where The Comedian occasionally starts speaking away from his microphone, losing his thread; we're left to decide this is him being overwhelmed by the feelings he's dealing with through comedy, or stepping back to invent his own life and personality for entertainment purposes. But while the show has a couple of philosophical questions to pose and darker elements to explore, it never succumbs to the temptation to completely take a turn into bleakness, leaving a nice balance of comedy and drama (as well as surely the largest collection of explicit gay sex jokes on the mainstream stage since A Strange Loop.)

Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen by Marcelo Dos Santos is booking until the 23rd of December at the Bush Theatre's Holloway.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: The Other Richard.

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