Aged between 15 and 50, five women share the stage at Belvoir Downstairs at the moment. No, that’s not quite right. Five performers share the stage as one woman. No, that’s not quite right either. They are all the one character. And they don’t really share the stage, they coexist on it. Actually, there’s a lot of beer in this production, I may be confused.
IS THIS THING ON, directed by Kit Brookman & Zoë Coombs Marr, is the story of Brianna. Misnamed by a long gone mother for the song ‘Rhiannon’, she has a misplaced drive to make people laugh. We meet her 15 year old self at her first stand up gig: a misfit staring into the spotlight. Things don’t improve much as we meet her at about 20, 30 and 40. Or when we encounter her 50ish self, trying to make a comeback after a spectacular implosion. This a convoluted and time shifted production with these 5 Briannas co-existing and interacting with each other.
The stage is really the initial disorienting aspect of the production. The space designed by Ralph Myers is set up as a typical open mic night at any seedy Aussie pub. A piece of ply on milk crates with a painted sheet behind and a wobbly mic stand serve as the comedy stage. Dodgy RSL tables and chairs butt the front row of audience. There are perpetual pokie machines played by some invisible force in the corner and handwritten posters for the ubiquitous trivia night. A light haze adds an air of smokiness. And you can just tell that the worn, industrial carpet is sticky.
After the 15 year old Brianna (Madeleine Benson) enters and stares open mouthed at the audience, the 40 year old incarnation explodes on stage . Susan Prior propels Brianna toward you and takes control. We learn a lot about Brianna quickly. Genevieve Giuffre and Nat Randall and Fiona Press are the other Briannas and each adds to what we know.
Brianna has a male comedy partner who deserts her, a succession of unsuitable share houses, a coming out and an onstage career killing tantrum. It’s not sequential though, you have to tune in to make the connections.
The audience is a vital element supporting the conceit of this show but it does take them some time to settle. Are we engaging with a stand-up who thrives on and expects to be heckled and cheered? Or is this a viewing experience with rules around politeness and suitable responses? (Best to avoid the front rows if you are in the latter category.) As a result of this dichotomy the humour doesn’t register for a while, especially in the first 10 minutes when the mic volume isn’t adjusted to a performer who is yelling. The excitement feels forced for a while but once the audience members decide which audience they are, things get funnier.
In this well written world, it is not the loser comedian who is funny. Jokes like “There are more fish in the sea … most of them gropers!” are unfunny, and riffs about fisting are just cringe worthy. Instead, the Brianna’s routines are cleverly folded onto each other through repetition and a weird kind of choral speaking. And this creates the laughs and the pathos.
In fact, the four older representations hand each other beers and microphones. They support and watch ‘themself’. They make no attempt to be similar apart from the 15 year old and the 50 year old sharing a T Shirt motif. What we laugh at here is how they comedically view their existence. Great writing and energetic performances draw us into Brianna’s world.
If this review is not coming across too clearly, I could still be under the influence of the beer fumes. IS THIS THING STILL ON has an extended season until the 2nd of November at Belvoir Downstairs. If you can get a ticket, and there are lots of sold out nights, it’s well worth a visit.