Inside Black Comedy lay a show that was technically and visually brimming with confidence and ability. However, while the play might have been a technical success, too often it succumbed to greater demons by turning everything up to eleven – consequentially drowning out the underlying critique of the British class system that makes Shaffar’s script a classic.
Firmly in the tradition of great British comedies, the play revolves primarily around Brindsley (played by Andrew Chalmers), having borrowed – without permission – his neighbour’s furniture in order to impress the father of his fiancé (Gus Haynes), as well as the German millionaire Georg Bamberger (Scott Wilson). However, when the lights in the building go out and Harold (Cody Dahler) the neighbour returns early, Brindsley and Carol (said fiancé played by Catriona Grew) must attempt to keep the situation under control.
The stand out aspect of the show lay in its technical prowess. Take the make up work–which was at a level beyond what one would normally expect to see in St Andrews. It helped to extenuate characterisation in an unobtrusive manner – quite often when you watch a 20 year old play a pensioner, it is hard to shake the sense of disconnect between the two. However, through the quality of the make up, the show managed to push beyond this. Similarly the light design was fantastic. The main theatrical conceit of the show is that when the stage lights are on, there is meant to be no light in the world of the characters. This results in a number of tight timing cues, that are hard to sync up perfectly – however the backstage brought the show to life. We don’t often think about such aspects, but that is partly the point. When the technical half of a play is done right we should barely notice it at all – yet the quality of work here is worth specific praise.
With regards to humour, the show’s greatest strengths lay in its physical comedy. Chalmers in particular was evidently gifted in this field, slinking across stage in an increasingly contorted manner in order to avoid the gaze of his guests. Yet while the director may have an eye for the visual, he had a tin ear for dialogue. For most of the play characters were played too far into hyperbole – are you posh? You’re now super-posh! Are you a weakling? You are a super-weakling! Are you gay? Super-gay! While this can at times be funny, it removes any element of balance in the characterisation. Where normally you’ll have a straight man to play off such eccentricities – here every character is wacky and zany and unique in precisely the same way. When everyone is shouting, you ultimately can’t hear anyone. Annabella Fraser is the notable exception, playing the mistress Clea with a refreshing understatement – where others boom, Clea purrs.
Underneath these glitches, Shaffer presents us with a vibrant and nuanced analysis of class and elitism. Carol and her father are dismissive of the middle class, Harold (a member of the nouveau riche) aspires to be tasteful while just being tacky, and everyone is foul to the electrical engineer with a philosophy degree. In the dark our true selves are revealed, and our prejudices come out. While the overly eccentric performances needed to have been rained in by the director – the quality of the tech alone is worth the price of entry. It’s just a shame that Black Comedy ended not with a whimper but a bang. And another bang. And another…