Bear Hug, for better or worse, felt like a sitcom. More specifically it felt like an early 2000s BBC sitcom. Even more specifically than that, it felt like an episode of My Family. This is not to say that it was not funny – but rather that Bear Hug, the farce that marks Rory Mackenzie’s third outing on the St Andrews stage, relied too much on the situations that its characters were in and not enough on the characters themselves.
The play (timely set on Halloween), revolves for the most part around Alex (Jared Liebmiller) and the party he is hosting. Alex’s parents think he is gay. Alex’s old school friend Tim (Tom Giles) is going around telling the guests that Alex is gay. Alex’s university friends are trying to get him out of the closet. Alex is, in fact, not gay – rather he is head over heels in love with Sarah (Rebecca D’Souza). Hilarity ensues.
And ensue it does – Mackenzie clearly has an ear for comedy, his biting one-liners and double-entendres leaving the audience in hysterics. His dialogue is put to great use by his actors – Tom Giles in particular giving hands down the stand out performance of the night. His portrayal of Tim brings a level of grounded, naturalistic humour that is missing from the rest of the play. Where others might just deliver a punch line, Giles weaves together comedic and darker elements into his delivery, resulting in a character that is intimately watchable. After his performances in this and The 39 Steps, it wouldn’t be a stretch to label him as one of St Andrews most gifted comic performers. The rest of the cast too turn in strong performances, with only a few slip-ups to be seen.
So clearly the play is funny – what’s the problem then? The issue for me then lay in the farce. It could be argued that farce is one of the most difficult forms of theatre to get right – where improv thrives in its unpredictability, farce relies whole-heartedly on each element triggering off another, creating an almighty crescendo. Bear Hug lacked this in parts – the latter sections of the play stagnating where it should have been escalating – resulting with an at times frustrating experience
Had we gotten more character development here perhaps this wouldn’t have been the case. Yet the play seems to deal with its characters on a superficial level only. I have heard the play being described as a gay play without any gay characters, and while that is an interesting proposition, the result is less sure. All of its characters are defined by their relationships with other people, and what motivates them is left unclear. Alex is defined by people thinking he is gay, along with his love for Sarah. Sarah is defined by her love for Alex. Alex’s parents are defined by their worry that their son is gay. The concept of being gay is only really discussed in terms of how we see it – the way people walk, or what they read. Most of the characters speak like they are from a particularly bawdy Aaron Sorkin film. Why does Alex love Sarah, and why does she love him? Why does Tim feel the need to sabotage Alex? Some will say that this is a comedy, and therefore these things don’t need to be answered. They might be right – but in order to care about characters, to want to watch them, we need them to be further characterised to make the situation that much funnier.
The play is very funny. The cast and director put in great work. I would recommend it. I would also recommend My Family. Both will make you laugh, both get the job done. The issue for Bear Hug was that at times the momentum stalled, and the characters weren’t strong enough to pick it up. Which was a real shame, because unlike My Family, there was something darker, funnier and more subversive at the heart of this show. Regardless, Mackenzie dared to do something that few student writers here do – he dared to give us a show that just wanted to make us laugh – and whether it was great, or whether it was good, we should all applaud him for that.
Photo Credit: Katie Brennan courtesy of Mermaids