A confused man is blown onto a stage of white drapes and sparse mismatched furniture by the wind, questioning his identity, his purpose, his location; a companion arrives, equally without bearings, but the demeanour of the individuals is markedly different, the one who is curious also considerably happier about their shared situation.
A third arrives, perhaps even more bamboozled than the first two; does this complete the set? A hat trick? A trio? Managing to identify each other as an Englishman, despondent, an Irishman, curious, and a quasi Scotsman, oblivious yet oddly literal, it would seem that they are the set up to a joke – but what is the nature of said joke, and when, if ever, will the punchline arrive?
Directed by Tony Cownie from a script by Dan Freeman, A Joke returns to the Edinburgh Fringe for a second run following its 2017 success with two of its former stars, Doctor Who‘s Sylvester McCoy and Star Trek Voyager‘s Robert Picardo, now joined The Golden Compass‘ John Bett as the third archetype waiting for the arrival of an absurdist Godot.
An analysis and dissection of humour and what makes a joke funny, in some hands McCoy’s gurning and physical comedy would become tiring, but he is an endearing and gentle master of the art who knows exactly how far to play the gag and when to hold back.
Although Picardo’s jokes are initially as poorly defined as his dubious ancestry he uses every character and expression in his expansive repertoire in his performance, essentially playing the fool for the other two, while the dour Bett completes the team brilliantly, each of them bouncing off each other as the the one liners fly, the balance between the players meaning they share the limelight rather than trying to upstage each other.
In comedy, timing is everything, and from jokes of nationality, physical comedy, linguistic jokes, sarcasm, impressions and nihilism, A Joke examines them all as the three characters attempt to explore their identity and purpose, should any meaning exist for them beyond the stage of their lives in which they find themselves; pleasingly, unlike many Fringe shows, the only variety of humour absent is unnecessary profanity.
The jollity undercut with a healthy dose of pragmatic cynicism – “Behind every weeping Madonna there is a broken toilet” – for all his seeming initial ignorance it is Picardo’s approach to their situation which is the most practical, paraphrasing Carl Sagan when he says “if you only have one apple pie, just make a very small pie.”
The minimalist setting and production never distracting from the snappy dialogue and sharp observations, the three actors and their hugely enjoyable joint performance, they may argue over whether the key to a good joke is surprise but in these capable hands it should be no surprise how good A Joke can be.