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January 22, 2009 | by  | in Arts Theatre | [ssba]

The Altruists

Written by Nicky Silver
Directed by Gene Alexander
with Desiree-Rose Cheer, Mel Dodge, Ben Fransham, Gareth Ruck and Leon Wadham
Bats, 7pm, 21st to 31st of Jan 2009.

Comedy on the theatre stage is a rather odd puppy. There seem, at least to me, to be two camps. The first is the comedy drama, the ‘dramedy‘ if you will, often, especially now in this post-The Office world in which we giggle, eschews actual jokes for awkward moments and comic bathos. The second is the topical runaround, often so often mean-spirited in its humour and rapid fire in its delivery as seem more like an assault than an fun night out. The Altruists is neither of these things. It is that dying art of just being a comedy and having no real pretensions beyond that. It just wants to entertain, to make us laugh. And, boy, does it succeed. The Altruists is properly, wonderfully hilarious. Oh, yes, the audience did roar.

Structurally it owes more than to bedroom farce: rapidly alternating between three bedrooms throughout the play. Sydney (Mel Dodge), star of Montana Beach, the prime time soap opera, has a bad night and shoots the person sleeping next to her thinking that it is Ethan (Ben Fransham) her live-in lover. But Ethan is off canoodling with Cybill (Desiree-Rose Cheer), a fervent if forgetful activist and not very good lesbian. At the same time, Ronald (Gareth Ruck), Sydney’s brother, has picked up Lance (Leon Wadham) at a bar the night before and is already in love. Over the course of an hour these three satellite scenes crash into each other, rocketing the plot through sex, politics and excess eating. Hilarious consequences ensue.

What really sets The Altruists apart from most comedy these days is how not mean-spirited it is. Once you realise that the characters are all equally despicable and little more than cartoon sketches the humour becomes centered on their actions as satirical beasts. But not what they stand for. Considering this is a play with large swathes of the radical left and queer community within it, this is more than a good thing. Nicky Silver is one smart and funny cat.

The cast are universally faultless in their performance and delivery. Ruck finds a fun little niche as Ronald the well meaning bordering on the obsessive social worker. Cheer excels as the confused Cybill. Wadham demonstrates the comic timing of an atomic clock as the delightfully aloof Lance. Dodge is wonderfully OTT as Sydney, who appears to have been taught how to emote by the same soap operas within which she works. Fransham’s Kerouac worshiping philanderer Ethan is a pitch perfect evocation of the hypocritical left. As a team they work together well, integrating slowly as they do as the play breaks from monologue to duologue to five people in a room shouting about how love sucks.

Gene Alexander’s direction is consummate and betrays an in-depth understanding of the intents of the play, flipping swiftly as it does from scene to scene. He is assisted more than ably by Tamsin Dashfield’s lighting and Gareth Ruck’s score, both hitting just exactly the right tone and mood that the piece demands.

The only real faults of note are minor. The script is spattered with odd occasions, asking the audience to care for these characters that have already been established themselves as vile and unrelateable. Once or twice it does miss its own tone and does some odd joke alchemy that could, out of context, seem like homophobia or similar. But these are rare enough to not be an issue at all.

The Altruists is not groundbreaking. It is will not break your heart or change your life. It will just make you laugh until it hurts and then keep you laughing until your agony turns to ecstasy. And that’s all it wants to do. Hurrah. Highly, highly, highly recommended.


About the Author ()

Uther was one of the two arts editors in 2009. He was the horoscopier and theatre writer in 2010. Alongside Elle Hunt, Uther was coeditor in 2011.

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