Billed in the season book as a “kind of Don Quixote for the female comic,” Zoë Coombs Marr’s Is This Thing On? is the story of one woman’s journey as a stand-up comedian. As we follow her career from her awkward first gig to her mid-career crisis and her eventual comeback some years later, not only do we see a character and person grow, but we also see Coombs Marr’s skills as a writer become apparent, because Is This Thing On? is essentially five overlapping and intersecting comedy routines, performed by five different actors, in five different moments in time.
Staged in Belvoir’s tiny little Downstairs theatre, Ralph Myers’ set of an inner-city pub, with its seedy patterned carpet (complete with stains), its makeshift stage in the corner, the pokies around the side, and the sticky tables and chairs, is scarily realistic; there is perhaps too much care and attention to detail here to be called healthy. With each incarnation of Briana clearly differentiated through their costume (they aren’t so much costumes as clothes), tone, and performance style, moments bleed into one another, are shared between two or three Briana’s; we are not so much watching a comedy routine as part of one, whether we like it or not.
Is This Thing On? plays to the room, unapologetically so, and milks it; in this way, it is fearless, and even though it feels fresh and new, raw with the carefully scripted plot of a good stand-up writer, I wonder how much of it is in fact improvised on the night, how much is left to the actor to create, how much relies upon audience interaction to guide its shape. Verity Hampson’s lighting – using the kind of warmth and sickly light usually found in pubs and clubs – creates intimacy and atmosphere, and subtly accommodates the shifts between solo show, audience participation, interludes, and back again.
Directed by Coombs Marr and Kit Brookman, the play unfolds with an engrossing intimacy – as Susan Prior’s Brianna progresses through her ‘night from hell,’ we are drawn into the world of this comedian at the end of their wits, and as things begin to unravel for her, former and future selves appear and deliver their own material, some of which echoes across multiple incarnations. Tightly controlled, rather than it seeming forced and repetitive, we see the importance of new material, the role memory and past experiences have on the formation of material, as well as the struggles that face any comedian today. Where Susan Prior’s Brianna becomes increasingly inebriated until she ‘hits the wall,’ an affecting mix of anger, frustration and weariness, Genevieve Guiffre is perhaps more eager and adrenalized; Nat Randall is more self-assured, and her coming out allows her more freedom as a performer and an individual. Fiona Press is perhaps slightly world-weary, but more mature, slightly cynical, but mischievous to boot, while Madeleine Benson as the fifteen year-old Briana is slightly nervous, but has more than enough charm and fiery capricious spark to see her right in her future.
Slightly chaotic, a little bit mad and full of the Quixotic kind of passion you have as a performer to share your work with as many people as possible, Is This Thing On? is certainly funny and entertaining, but underneath it all is a serious heart – how far do we go in the name of our art before we put our well-being at risk? How desperate are we to get a laugh from a crowd of strangers; how far can we fall before we are caught and propped back on our feet by those around us?
The only thing missing from this production is Coombs Marr herself on stage, as her voice and mannerisms are all through its fabric; it’d be fascinating and more than slightly mind-bending to see if it was possible to do a one-woman version of this show…
Theatre playlist: 62. Cheap Wine, Cold Chisel