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Check out FUNNY, Assembly@7Holyrood

funny - review from theatre studies blogThose of you up there in Edinburgh: do you ever get the feeling, after having watched yet another half-baked show that the press are bigging up for reasons beyond your comprehension, that there must be other shows out there that you’re just not hearing about, that might actually be gold dust? Well, my top tip for the fringe-weary is FUNNY, by Tim Nunn, currently running at a pop-up storefront venue on Holyrood Place (off the end of Cowgate, bottom of Pleasance). It’s right next to a brand new bar that also does great burgers, so all the more reason to visit! This storefront venue has been lovingly turned into a 40- or 50- seat black box theatre by Nunn and his Reeling & Writhing Company (director, Katherine Morley). So top marks for initiative. But what’s really great about FUNNY is that it provides the perfect antidote to those endless bright colour posters confronting you on all sides in Edinburgh at this time of year, with chirpy faces begging you to come and see *their* show because, ooh, it’s just so funny! If you, like I, have ever felt a little forced into fake Fringe jollity, then this show about the use of humour in the interrogation of terrorist suspects is just the thing to restore your equilibrium.

Nunn is working from real sources that came into his purview during his previous career as a leading human rights activist (he’s a former director of the Free Tibet Campaign). These sources demonstrated that humour had been used as a tool in interrogations against suspects who – having been trained in meditation techniques designed to tune out interrogators and their thumbscrews -might be resistant to other approaches. After all, the laughter response is involuntary (or should be, comedy festival notwithstanding): we laugh despite ourselves, and having laughed, we sometimes find ourselves in a place we hadn’t expected to be. What’s brilliant about this show is that it really does get the audience laughing at stuff we’re quite nervous laughing about – so we become, in a sense, the “victims” of the interrogation. The actual terrorist suspect in the scenario, however, remains unseen – off behind a closed cell door, which only opens at the very end of the show, as the interrogator enters the cell, in an eerie shaft of light, with the words “knock knock…” What follows is deliberately left to your darkest imagination – which is why Mark Fisher’s two-sentence LIST review (which dismissively suggests that the show ends where it should begin) is such a prime example of idiotic Fringe criticism from journalists who have seen too much already and are really not paying attention. As I implied at the outset, you can’t always trust the press, and especially not at this time of year.
FUNNY is simply and yet cleverly structured. It tells the story of an army interrogator who feigns having dropped out of the services, and wants to learn to use stand-up comedy as a way to vent his demons after experiencing the traumas of war in Afghanistan. He is helped by a liberal-left-leaning comedy teacher (shades of Trevor Griffiths’ play COMEDIANS, one of my all-time favourites), who belatedly discovers that his student is still in active service. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but the teacher’s response to his discovery is more equivocal than it might be, and that’s the point: he and we are intrigued to know more about what use comedy might be put to in interrogations. After all, surely it’s a nicer approach than waterboarding? And, sure, we all want to defend our country, right? The play subtly and disturbingly asks questions about the lengths that we in UK are prepared to go to in extracting information from untried, uncharged captives – and its theatrical process of engaging and entertaining us makes us all uncomfortably complicit.

Katherine Morley deserves particular credit for her effortless handling of the play’s oscillations between realistic dialogue scenes and theatrical set pieces. The interrogator’s scenes with his comedian-teacher and his more straightforwardly brutal army colleague are juxtaposed with set-piece interludes in which he showcases a variety of classic comic techniques and gags, but always with a perverse twist befitting the darkness of the subject matter. This central performance by Tommy Mullins stands head and shoulders above much of what passes for “stand-up” on the fringe, but you won’t see his face on the poster. Instead, there’s a nice cartoon of a skull, with the eyes and mouth made out of another cartoon of a man with a gun in front of a PA amplifier. It’s a cunning play on the Stand Comedy Club’s trademark image of a clown with a gun to his head, waiting to “die” on stage…

Anyway, enjoy the Festival. I’ll be back briefly next week, so I’m hoping to catch a couple of WT-related shows then.

Steve Bottoms