Defending the Caveman has turned into a somewhat slow-burning international phenomenon, with eight productions touring in North America alone, and over forty actors who can claim to have defended the male mentality to date. At Leicester Square Theatre, good old Joe Mangel himself, actor and television presenter Mark Little, reprises the role that won him an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment in 1999.
It is a role that Little fits well. With his familiar face, charming Australian accent and bubbly breakfast television persona, along with an endearing regard for his wife, it is hard not to believe him when he tells us that when a man is watching television, he is genuinely unable to draw his eyes away from the screen to focus on whatever snippet of juicy information his wife is trying to impart on him, and many of his wandering observations on the difference between male and female behaviour are enlightening, or at least genuinely very funny.
It shouldn’t really be controversial material, and both Little as actor and Becker as writer have trodden a fine line to make sure that their defence of all things male is presented without a single suggestion of anger or blame about the way men have been stereotyped, but therein lies the problem. In explaining the male, Becker's defence plays to the female, expressing every observation as an observation of how, genetically, men are just not as good at doing things as women are. Held up next to the striking force of feminism, this gentle stab at a masculinism movement is tinged with a need to please that makes it a little one-dimensional.
Although the softly softly approach does make it suitable for an entertaining and comedic West End production that imparts the feelgood factor onto men and women alike, it also makes the whole scenario feel a little contrived.
-Kate JacksonNote: The following THREE-STAR review dates from February 1999 and the production's West End run at the Apollo Theatre.
Much has changed since Professor Higgins declared in My Fair Lady, 'Why can't a woman behave like a man? / Men are so friendly, good natured and kind / A better companion you never will find.'
These days the post-feminists have convinced all but the thickest-skinned amongst us that men aren't so much solid and dependable, as insensitive, lazy, antisocial and - this really hurts - lousy in bed. Or, as Aussie actor Mark Little complains in Rob Becker's Defending the Caveman, 'In the '90s there are two genders, women and arseholes.'
To defend himself against these egregious accusations, Little enlists the help of 'the spirit of the caveman', which he summons up from a circle of crusty underpants on his bedroom floor. This ghostly Neanderthal explains to our jocular antipodean the true reason why the gender gap looms so large: apparently, after millions of years of evolution, us blokes are still essentially hunters, while our women folk are still gatherers.
Naturally, this accounts for the unique desire men have to focus on the cathode ray tube for inordinate lengths of time - it's merely a throwback to all those hours our spear-carrying ancestors spent watching their prey. The gathering instinct, on the other hand, explains why our partners can spend hours flitting from boutique to boutique, or collecting bits of gossip on the phone.
It's obvious that writer Becker has constructed the sort of hypothesis that entertains, rather than enlightens; one that sets up a whole range of daft observational jokes and snappy one-liners. But so many of these are at Little's expense you're left thinking that the show isn't really about 'defending' the caveman at all, it's about lampooning him.
On the whole, director David Gilmour ensures Little's delivery is quickfire enough to keep the audience in a steady fit of giggles. To complete the neanderthal image, he even places the dishevelled looking actor at the centre of a Fred Flintstone-inspired living room, complete with Lascaux daubings, chunky stone TV, and a primitive spear.
Ultimately, what is hard to bear about Defending the Caveman though, is the sheer length of the piece. Ninety minutes may be a short time to sit in a theatre, but it's a hell of long time to spend watching what is basically a glorified sketch.
In truth, this would be far sharper and much fresher as a 15 minute stand-up slot at somewhere like Jongleurs.