Comedy Festival 2008, BATS Theatre; The Classic
April 22-26; 29-May 3 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

Rubber Turkey is a strange play to be part of the Comedy Festival as it is incredibly dark at its heart. Yet it is also the perfect play for the festival too – it is genuinely funny in parts and shines an interrogatory light upon what makes us laugh. Coming from the pen of a young writer, Eli Kent, who also directs, it is incredibly intelligent and astute, and as much of a “eulogy” for lost innocence as a 20 year old is capable of producing.

The audience is guided and instructed in the history, philosophy and art of the joke and laughter by “Chicken” of the chicken crossing the road jokes. Jack Shadbolt fills this role admirably, maintaining a dead pan delivery as he mounts another clichéd suicide attempt. He occupies an unidentified parallel universe inhabited by other personified subjects of worn out jokes – the “Guy” (as in “a guy walk into a bar”), the “Blonde” (in ripped stockings, white boots and a pink mini dress) and “Winston” the read-headed clown who has developed a ducking reflex as a result of all the pain inflicted upon him in the name of humour. They answer to the controlling voice of “Reviewer No. 473381500269 303 11” who controls their fate. The ultimatum is this: be funny again, or die. Alex Greig is suitably angry and understated as “Guy”; Abby Marment is ebullient and defiant as the “Blonde” and Oliver Cox plays a sweet, rambling and unusual clown as “Winston”. Although we don’t see him as the Reviewer, Gavin Rutherford’s vocal characterisation is superb and generates many laughs.

Aside from the suicidal chicken, the story begins and unfolds lightly enough. All of the jokes have rebelled against their stereotypes. Whilst this may be personally satisfying for them to break out of limited confines of their definitions, they have become less funny as a result. The story takes a definite turn towards the dark and the surreal after Winston elects to have a “procedure” offered to him by the Reviewer in order to stop him from flinching in the face of pain. The result is, however, far from funny. The play successfully plays with what prompts laughter, particularly laughter at someone else’s expense. Kent explores this in his Writer’s note in the programme, observing that humour now requires more shock value and “The best shows are the ones that hurt.” At times his personal preoccupations seem to come at the expense of plot and character development, but there is no denying he has explored his theme intelligently.

Just as the play is getting quite heavy, Kent pulls it back by fulfilling an expectation that in hindsight seems entirely obvious, but produced genuine surprise (and genuine laughter) in its obvious simplicity. I loved this play – it was thought provoking and makes an interesting change from traditional Comedy Festival fare. It features excellent performances from its cast and creative design from the production team – the use of old televisions as part of the set was particularly effective. It marks the debut of an exciting young writer and director in Eli Kent. Whatever ultimately creates humour, Kent seems pretty close to cracking it.