The RSC is back in town, but not, this time, the Royal Shakespeare Company - it’s the all too familiar Reduced Shakespeare Company, the American RSC, with an all-sports-to-all-men cabaret that is funny up to a point, but not much beyond that.
Reed Martin and Matt Rippy in The Complete World Of Sports (Abridged) at the Arts Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Despite a few desperate lunges in the general direction of Olympic Games year, the show posits an unsolved conundrum - who’s going to the theatre during the festivities and who wants to see a play about athletics when you can see the athletics on television anyway?
They were a couple of questions the alternative RSC could have posed but didn’t. Oddly, a show about sport may be the last thing we need at the moment. The sport itself is enough and Chariots of Fire is at the Gielgud, should you need topping up on the patriotic front.
Instead, the very likeable but finally over-tiresome trio of Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor and Matt Rippy go down so many familiar paths they become somehow predictable.
For a performance that alludes to American media breakfast time coverage but doesn’t relate to the huge NBC influx of Olympics personnel at the games, or to the catastrophe of the security arrangements in the athletes’ village, you wonder why the actors are still referencing Star Wars or running with bulls at Pamplona.
There is a lot of golly-gosh gooning and gurning, and some considerable faffing around with gratuitous references to champion jockey Willie Carson, nearly-hero Andy Murray and rhythmic gymnasts who may or may not redeem the nation’s sense of itself.
The Complete World of Sports is a survey of odd athletic preoccupations, from tennis to ping pong, with sideswipes at John Terry, and a report from the Elizabethan games that Juliet has been tested for drugs and Ophelia failed her swimming trials.
Surprisingly, the trio don’t prove to be terribly athletic themselves, and the set-pieces surrounding golf or bull-fighting are not very funny. Nor are various questions, such as, do you prefer baseball or cricket? Who invented synchronised swimming? Who cares?
Good gags refer to odd but respectable British hobbies such as trainspotting or dwarf-throwing, but you never feel that a guiding principle is at work, or that anyone really pulled out his or her editorial pencil - you want the play to continue, even as you fall out of love with the man behind the masque, or sympathise with the ladies’ point of view.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company occupied the Criterion Theatre for nine years, and we should never underestimate its pulling power in the comedy market. But The Complete World of Sports remains a lumpy hybrid, full of fascinating detail and identification.
And a pair of heart-warming turns from Matt Rippy as the loyal factotum and the man who might know too much, with a surprise wig to boot, are small recompense. I laughed, that’s for sure, but not a lot.