Francis J Exell
If, like me, you harbour an abiding mistrust of anything that feels the need to sport an exclamation mark in its name, fear not. Anyone who caught Ali Muriel’s riproaring absurdist comedy Parasites at the Hen & Chickens last year will have been frantic to witness more of this new playwright’s wild imaginings brought to life on stage. Happily, and with some haste, Muriel is happy to oblige with Gobsmack!.
A trio of three short plays written around impossible events, the components of Gobsmack! run without interval and confirm beyond doubt that when it comes to riffing on any given ridiculous premise, Ali Muriel is peerless. The theatre of the absurd is where he belongs, but his humour is closer to that of Terry Pratchett than Edward Albee – it’s a humour that’s always accessible.
The evening begins with Modern Day Miracle, in which a well-to-do suburban couple (Damien Warren-Smith and Heather Wilds) wake up to find their bed has turned into gravel. After some blaming and counter-blaming, what to do but to call the Ikea Rapid Reaction Force? The Swedish disposable furniture manufacturer, famed for doing business its own way (no you can’t take the trolley out to the car park, but we won’t tell you why), is here personified by a sinister, uniformed fix-all-things Swede (Francis J Exell) whose menacing presence turns present day reality into something madly warped that insists it’s all quite sane. There are great jokes at Ikea’s – and their customers’ – expense, and the evening is well set up for more.
And more we get. After uses the nifty device of keeping one of the main protagonists, a drunken literary agent played with relish by Napoleon Ryan, outside the auditorium for longer than should reasonably be possible. We’re in the grand home of Peter, an ambitious writer who wants nothing more than to be left alone to finish whichever project he’s currently failing to complete. Peter (Alec Walters) is in no mood to meet his agent, especially late at night and in a state, but by the end of the play the tables are hilariously turned by Sheila, a dead (!) smack addict played deadpan by Cariad Lloyd. There’s a chilly hint of something beyond comedy in this play, a sense of impending doom.
The last and shortest of the plays, Furnace Four, transports us to what might be doom itself. A two-hander set quite literally at the coalface, two furnace stokers (Dan Jennings and Luke Tudball) drudge in an Orwellian dictatorship but inexplicably discover that they are virtuoso musicians. The trouble is, playing music is a crime punishable by instant death, and in the corner stands a piano. By some way the darkest of the three plays, it feels like the answer of an artistic child to the incessant parental question of What are you going to do with your life?
As with Parasites before it, Gobsmack! passes all too quickly, its uproarious and spot-on comedy derived from scatterball situations directed pacily by Samuel Miller. By darkening the mood by the end, Ali Muriel shows he’s capable of exercising his imagination to make serious points beyond his talent for comedy. We’ve yet to discover what he can’t do – but Gobsmack! is well named, leaving the audience astonished and sent away grinning simultaneously, exclamation marks or not.