The Joke review at Camden People’s Theatre – ‘resolutely comedic’
Three men: Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman. You know the one. They find themselves on stage, looking out at an audience, with no idea about what they’re meant to be doing. And the Irishman (Lloyd Hutchinson) points out that he’s from Belfast, actually.
By the time the three strangers realise that they are already deep into a joke that they don’t understand, this is one of many sticking points. Will the joke work with a man from Northern Ireland? Is the Scotsman Scottish enough? And who is telling this joke, anyway?
With a good gag rate, parodies of national dances and a series of very funny rants on belonging to three of the nationalities that make up the UK (notably excepting the Welsh, who get only a couple of throwaway references), The Joke thrives on the interplay of frictions and micro-aggressions between the three men as they frantically attempt to get to the punchline.
While resolutely comedic, The Joke is a kind of engine for existential references – its three characters trapped on stage while dredging up cruelties are reminiscent of No Exit. Helplessly caught in a narrative they don’t understand, the characters also bring to mind Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
This existential quality saturates this comedy-theatre hybrid, and while it doesn’t quite lay national identity bare, The Joke drives its characters to the very brink – isolated but held together in their self-inflicted stereotypes. Nationality is a restraint here, and The Joke is ultimately about not denying or transcending it, but surviving it.