The death of his father still affects James (James Thomson) both personally and professionally. His verbatim work in progress piece about mundane family conversations suddenly doesn’t feel so mundane, so forgettable or so meaningless. Yet at the start of the show he sits on stage and prefixes his new work with a speech about the futility of choice. Life is simply a repetition of cause and effect – we didn’t affect our own causality or choose our newborn personalities from an endless list of options. Our free will is simply an illusion, The Matrix is right, it’s all as scripted as the play that unfolds on the stage.
Whether able or not to decide our own fate, Laughing Matter stresses the insignificance of each one of us when put into context with the universe – if one life holds such negligence when considering all of creation, how can James justify his feelings of grief that he clearly can’t express, can’t process and can’t move past? Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H is particularly effective in adding poetic colour to the emotions that hang in the air of the theatre as James doubts himself, stammering and stuttering, unable to verbalise his inner pain. Of course, even the reciting of a poem is tainted with uncertainty; the very concept of sound or colour is simply an interaction between individuals, a perception that these interpretations of the world are the same in each other’s consciousness. Without the other person, the world is bleak and silent, intensely isolating and lonely. James, it seems, can relate to Matilda in Tim Minchin’s musical of the same name.
All this seemingly casual one-sided dialogue prepares the audience for the single repetitive interaction between James (Thomson) and his dad Simon (Keith Hill). One innocuous scene with father-son angst, forgettable arguments about bananas and website logos and an arrogant child that doesn’t realise how pernicious his words can be. Only it’s more memorable, the moments resonate more strongly since the outcome is already known, pre-chosen and written in stone. Hill and Thomson have an uneven chemistry on stage, at times complementing each other and at others missing out on some necessary interactions. The overall effect is realistic; families talk over each other, don’t pick up on emotional cues or seem to pay attention to someone that they assume will be in their lives for a long time to come.
As the scene repeats and morphs, Thomson’s past and his present collide. Parents are flawed and they aren’t always going to be around – a message that parallels Greyscale Theatre’s Gods Are Fallen And All Safety Gone. The prefix to this metamorphosis justifies its existence but ultimately detracts from its impact. The writers don’t trust in the ability of their audience to understand the concept, choosing instead to sit them down and walk them through it before acting it out, a teacher explaining a story to a child in case they aren’t able to comprehend it first time round.
Death is no laughing matter. Despite James’ attempted justifications that such an insignificant, common event shouldn’t affect an individual if they consider it in relation to the vastness of the universe, he grieves. He hurts. He feels.
I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
“Stanza V; In Memoriam A.H.H; Alfred Tennyson”
Laughing Matter – King’s Head Theatre, London
Writers: Paul Lichtenstern & James Thomson
Director: Paul Lichtenstern
Cast: James Thomson; Keith Hill
Producer: Tahmid Chowdhury for End of Moving Walkway
Design: Richard Williamson (Lighting & Video); Anna Clock (Sound)
Runs until 16 July 2016
Reviewer: Daniel Perks