Speech! Speech!

So last week we went to see the Working Dog play The Speechmaker, and just to make it clear from the start: we’re not regular theatre-goers. Sure, we occasionally visit the theatre district to check out a live performance – usually featuring Shaun Micallef – but it’s fair to say that our knowledge of theatre is, much like our knowledge of stand-up comedy, hardly exhaustive.  So even more than usual, what follows is an opinion you should take with a grain of salt.

It’s kind of surprising it’s taken Working Dog – Rob Sitch, Tom Gleisner and Santo Cilauro are the listed authors – so long to write a “proper” play. They started out in comedy doing live reviews (basically, live sketch comedy), but unlike some other members of the then D-Generation (specifically Tony Martin and Mick Molloy, who left after The Late Show in part because they wanted to do more live work), these three never really went back to live performance after the television and radio gigs started coming in. So is this a long awaited homecoming? Uh, no.

The plot of The Speechmaker is relatively straightforward: In the wake of a rousing Christmas Eve speech based on the feel-good topic of “humanity”, the US President (Erik Thomson) boards Air Force One for a top secret surprise visit to London to, um… well, it’s a little unclear, but it basically seems to be a PR visit with a side dose of showing support for the USA’s number one ally in the War on Terror.

Also on this flight we have: the President’s political advisor (Kat Stewart), security advisor (Jane Harber), chief of staff (Nicolas Bell), and speechwriter (Toby Truslove), along with a perky media handler (Sheridan Harbridge) and a very attentive flight attendant (Brent Hill). Oddly, even early on no really effective double-acts make themselves known – there’s no natural comedy parings here, no characters that set each other foibles into high relief.

A stop partway into the flight sees the arrival of the defense secretary (David James), a vaguely sinister policy wonk (Lachy Hulme), and a Marine colonel (Christopher Kirby). If they sound like slightly more serious types, that’s because, after an opening that sees to be about the vapidity of current politics (the President’s big opening speech is given in such a way that we can read his teleprompter, complete with stage directions like “REAL EMOTION”), the story takes a shift when “chatter” reveals there may be a terrorist attack aimed at a major Western leader on the horizon.

[VAGUE BUT NONETHELESS VERY REAL SPOILERS: It’s been suggested that this might be yet another attempt by Working Dog to crack the US market (after the failure of The Dish), what with the US-centric characters and storyline. And this is a very US-centric storyline: without giving too much away, despite the darker turn events take this has the firm message that the US is a colossus astride the globe, nothing of import happening without its involvement or consent. It gives the story its old-fashioned tinge – people might have believed this in 2004, but in 2014 it’s fairly clear large parts of the world do what they like without the US doing shit – and whatever The Speechmaker might say about how that power is used, it’s still fairly flattering to the US to even suggest it still has such power. END SPOILERS]

There’s plenty of good things to be said here. It’s a great cast, and they sell every joke – there was never a single moment where it felt like the writing was being let down by either the cast or the direction. The set itself rotates, so while the entire story is set on Air Force One the shifts between various parts of the plane – The President’s office, the back seats, a conference room, even the cockpit – is all handled seamlessly. And there’s a lot of shifting around; while there are a number of longer, more traditional scenes with many of the cast gathered in one place, there are also numerous shorter scenes, and even sight gags between cast members as we “cut” from one scene to the next.

[a more cynical reviewer might suggest here that this is less of a work designed for the stage and more of a low-budget movie script that they – after the utter failure of Any Questions For Ben? – thought they could make happen by first generating interest via a successful stage run. With its numerous short scenes and varied locations inside the one set, it’s in some ways a more natural fit for the big screen than the stage.]

The big problem here – aside from the theatre it’s being presented in itself (which is not a great fit for this kind of sight-gag using comedy, especially if you’re up the back) and your chances of getting a ticket (the current run is all but sold out, with only a few midweek matinee tickets left at the time of writing) – is the script. We said going in if what we got was the equivalent of two late-series episodes of The Hollowmen, we’d be happy.

We got early series episodes. That’s not so good.

For a comedy, a lot of the characters aren’t all that well defined. The President starts off seeming like a comedy buffoon, only to develop something of a spine as events progress. There’s maybe a comparison to be made here with Frontline‘s Mike Moore – another Working Dog character who occasionally acted like he had the courage of his convictions – but Moore was a clueless TV host: by the time you get to be President even if you’re an empty suit there’s a pretty good chance you already know just how far you’re going to go in the defense of the free world.

The supporting cast are equally ill-defined. Jane Harber’s been getting a lot of praise in the reviews we’ve been reading and rightly so, but that’s largely because she’s playing an actual character: a stick-up-the-backside security chief with a very Hilary Clinton look, and-

– we heard an interview somewhere (it may have even been this one) where Tom Gleisner said that they’d been working on the idea for The Speechmaker for a while now, dropping it every time a new President came along then realising that it was as relevant as ever. This is not true: this is a play that is coming to you live from a period between 2002-2009, when the War on Terror was a living thing and there was still an idea that America’s war against its enemies could possibly somehow go too far. The whole thing feels just a little too behind the times and a little too obvious in a world where the current US President is murdering people via remote-controlled robots.

– a nice line in comedy befuddlement. Just about everyone else remains a little too fuzzy around the edges: the hard-nosed Defense Secretary is, a brief dalliance with Spongebob Squarepants aside, basically played straight, the political advisor is colourless, the chief of staff comes off as a faded West Wing memory and the speech writer seems like he’s going to be a pivotal character early on but he just fizzles out.

Lachy Hulme gets a lot of prominence on the posters but he has a fairly small role in the play itself, though he’s getting a paragraph all to himself here because it becomes increasingly clear that he’s meant to be the Doctor Strangelove character: a vaguely sinister intellectual who explains that, by the logic of the nightmarish world we live in, the unthinkable is in fact inevitable. He even puts on the tinted glasses at one point.

Unfortunately, this is no Doctor Strangelove. With the characters largely ill-defined, a lot of the character-based jokes don’t get the traction they need to really hit home, while the later, more dramatic scenes don’t have the requisite gravity due to the “old news” nature of the revelations about the War on Terror. A handful of running gags work and on their own just about every scene is perfectly serviceable as comedy and as drama. It’s just that when every scene is just pretty good you don’t end up with a great play.

As we said at the start, we’re not regular theatre-goers. It’s perfectly possible that our standards are too high here: we’re comparing this with previous Working Dog efforts, not other stage plays. But as a Working Dog effort it has a lot of the flaws seen in some of their more recent scripted work: a cast over-stuffed with fuzzy characters (for a 90-odd minute play, ten characters seems a little much), too many low-key “realistic” performances, a stress on story realism over laughs (the days when they used to do gag-packed crazy radio “drama” serials is long gone) and a steady stream of jokes that are funny without any of them really standing out.

It’s still good, mind you, and definitely an enjoyable night out if you can find someone else to pay the (on average) $90 a ticket. And if you can’t get to see it, don’t worry too much: if they do end up turning it into a movie it’d be a shitload better than Any Questions For Ben? and if it tours nationally there’s a good chance they’ll give the script a decent polish.

And come on, we shouldn’t have been so surprised it wasn’t a laff riot. After all, it’s called The Speechmaker for a reason; fingers crossed their next play is called something closer to The Gagmeister.

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