Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, London SW10 9ED
Until Saturday 27 October
Frankly it would be amiss of me to start a review of this play without addressing its interminable title. Perhaps there is something our American friends find hilarious about it that got lost somewhere on the journey across the pond, perhaps not. Either way, let’s just call it A Funny Thing.
As comedy topics go, cancer is an improbable choice. But that’s exactly what we’re given in A Funny Thing, a play in which two women lay moaning and dying in adjacent beds on the eponymous cancer ward. If that seems too morbid, don’t worry, because the real action occurs between their respective children.
Karla (Cariad Lloyd), a foul-mouthed young comedian, and Don (Rob Crouch) a misanthropic New Yorker-reading divorcee, form an unlikely but convincing bond as they watch over their dying mothers, and much of the play is a dialogue between the two characters.
Writer Halley Feiffer deserves immense credit for the daring and unashamedly risqué way in which she approaches an otherwise macabre subject. “I can make cancer jokes because I have cancer,” says Karla’s mother Marcie (Kristin Milward), neatly summarising the ethos underlying the entire play. No joke goes “too far” when you’re wasting away in a pastel pink cancer ward. The target of the characters’ humour moves intrepidly from cancer and death to suicide, rape and paedophilia. It’s not often you can get away with that sort of thing but somehow A Funny Thing does, and the jokes almost always hit the spot.
Beneath all the witty one-liners and crude gags is, of course, a more serious theme. A Funny Thing oscillates between the silly and the sorrowful in its exploration of humour in tragic situations. Lloyd and Crouch both deliver convincing performances and the play is well suited to the intimate surroundings of the Finborough. The sex scene in the disabled toilet is the hilarious, groan-inducing highlight of the play.
Yet as the play goes on you feel Feiffer begin to pull her punches. The bold, controversial comedy that flies in the face of all things sombre gives way to a romantic, somewhat saccharine denouement. Okay, the sex scene between Karla and Don is unlikely, but it’s funny. The inchoate beginnings of a relationship between the two characters just seem contrived. Marcie, who is as fierce and unloving a mother as you could possibly imagine, is mollified by Don’s new affection for her daughter and experiences some sort of deathbed repentance.
And so, in the end, A Funny Thing seems to shy away from its audacious intentions. You can’t help but feel it would be more powerful if Karla and Don merely drifted apart, having helped each other in their time of need. Or if Marcie remained an awful human being to the bitter end (it is possible, you know.)
This is not to take away from its moments of brilliance and refreshingly brutal humour, which make it a worthwhile watch. But ultimately the edifying ending leaves you wishing Feiffer had the bottle to see it all the way through.