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Jo Caird: Are Those Cheap Gags Worth It?

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Most new plays will contain at least a couple of local references, details that ground them in a particular moment, a specific geographical location and a certain social world. This is so regular an occurrence that it’s not even really necessary for me to give examples – you’ve probably already thought of lots of your own – but there are different ways of dealing with and integrating local nods, some of which are more successful than others.

Philip Ridley sets all his plays in the East End of London because that is the world he grew up in and it’s where the characters in his head seem to live. Even Ridley’s most recent play, Tender Napalm, which is fantastical and abstract in terms of its context, includes references to “that old hardware shop down Bethnal Green Road” and “the charity shop down Columbia Row”. These nods give a little context to the characters that furthers the audience’s understanding of them and the play, but are subtle enough not to get in the way of what the piece is trying to do.

Some plays, however, seem to glory in the inclusion of local references as observational comedy-style gags that serve merely to prompt the audience to laugh. I don’t want to sound like a scrooge – I’m a big fan of funny plays and laughing in general – but there’s something that feels a little cheap about this technique. I felt this way at Theatre503 on Friday night seeing Many Moons, playwright Alice Birch’s first full-length play (she only graduated from university in 2009), which is set very ostentatiously in Stoke Newington, just up the road from where I live.

Many Moons is a promising piece of work from such a young writer, exploring via some compelling characters the interaction between love, obsession, despair and self-reliance. It’s also very funny, picking on the absurdities of middle class life in trendy Stoke Newington. The characters are instantly recognisable, particularly that of Juniper, played with disarming sweetness and humour by Esther Smith.

But despite laughing at all these references – and enjoying the show – I couldn’t help but feel a little annoyed by them. I felt the same way watching two other plays I otherwise liked a great deal, David Eldridge’s The Knot of the Heart back in March at the Almeida and Penelope Skinner’s Eigengrau last year at the Bush. The jokes in these plays rely on the audience’s familiarity with the world the playwright is referencing: the audience is invited in, made to feel included and clever for knowing what the playwright is talking about. My problem with this? It all just feels a bit smug.

By aiming references and gags at a particular group, a playwright runs the risk of alienating any audience members not in that group. There’s nothing like seeing lots of people get a joke you don’t understand to make you feel stupid and left out. The other potentially harmful effect of this practice is the way it flags up the writing process itself, making the audience acutely aware of the way the playwright is manipulating them and thereby distracting from the issues that the work is seeking to explore. A third danger is that this type of play will almost always date faster than a piece that relies less heavily on a highly specific set of social, historical or geographical circumstances for its punch and humour.

I’m not arguing for playwrights to do without local references altogether – they can be very useful in terms of adding colour and depth to a piece of work – but the line between contextually grounded and distractingly obsequious is a fine one and coming down on the wrong side of it can turn an otherwise satisfying play into an irksome theatre experience.


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