Production: 101 Ways to Pretend You’re Not Forty
Venue: Drama Barn
Having attended the superb Open Drama Night earlier in the week in which we were treated to not only a reduced version of every DramaSoc play this year, but also a short improvised musical, I was hopeful that the cast and crew of 101 Ways to Pretend You’re Not Forty would prove their comedic talent once again. Happily, I was not disappointed.
The new play, written and directed by student Max Tyler, takes place inside an institution where middle-aged patients are treated for mid-life crises as though they were mentally unstable. In fact the facility is brainwashing its residents, sent there by concerned and irritated family members, into believing that they can never be truly happy and should therefore stop trying: as one of the show’s many mantras states “People without dreams, don’t have nightmares.” The play encompasses a wide variety of “middle-aged tendencies” including reigniting former dreams of stage stardom, writing poetry, sexual deviancy, purchasing a motorbike and the performance opened with one patient’s ironically hilarious attempt to be a stand-up comic.
The highlight of the show was Michael Wilkins’s portrayal of the anxious and insipid Norman Barker. His quivering hands and perplexed expressions, together with Tyler’s skilful one-liners created a character that kept the audience laughing and “awwwing”. Dan Wood similarly was perfect as the charismatic face of the brainwashing scheme – the Paul McKenna of middle-age – and his picture hung about the walls of the set, reminding the audience and patients of his plastic smile. Teaming Wood with Rosie Fletcher as Dr Edwards was a stroke of comic genius, but this couple was somewhat underused in the main plot of the play. At times the performance felt slightly static, where characters rested too much on long portions of speech than physical movement, but the outstanding amount of energy from each cast member, particularly the two other female actors, Gemma Whitham and Katherine Timms, kept the audience hooked into the action.
The structure of the play could have been improved, as the passage of time and the development of some characters seemed sometimes slightly irregular, however this did not hinder what is essentially a simple, funny play. A word of advice to Tyler would be to have a bit more faith in the comedy of his own script – there was often no need for overplayed double-takes or lingering pauses; the sincerity of the quirky characters is humour enough.