Edinburgh Fringe 2015 Review: Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Laughter is left ringing in ‘s ears, but the writing style of this modern mouthful fails to Ruhl the day

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Image: UCLU Runaground

★★★☆☆

Venue: Underbelly (Cowgate)

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a highly unusual play about a young woman (Bel Parker) obsessed with answering the phone of a man (Howard Horner) who dies in a café while sitting at the table next to hers. Sarah Ruhl’s black comedy is a difficult play to perform thanks to its dry humour and hints of surrealism. However, UCLU Runaground generally cope well with the frantic mood changes and characterisation that hovers over the boundary between parody and cliché.

Parker does a fantastic job at capturing Jean’s gawky charm but also realistically portrays her angry outbursts as she becomes more and more obsessed with Gordon’s cell phone. Jean’s endearing awkwardness works especially well when she’s sharing the stage with the show’s more colourful characters, from the scarily sophisticated Carlotta (Izabela Karamon) to the overbearing Mrs Gottlieb (Jordana Belaiche). Karamon and Belaiche’s performances are wonderfully exaggerated yet both actors demonstrate a control that makes it clear their characters are supposed to be slightly hammy. However, Miranda Evans gives the standout performance of the show as the hilariously droll Hermia. Karan Gill is an unexpected choice for Dwight, Gordon’s underappreciated younger brother, and later Gordon himself in a beautifully choreographed flashback sequence detailing the last day of his life. Dwight isn’t as interesting as the other characters, but Gill gives a solid performance nonetheless.

Him and Parker make a sweet couple but they can be slightly cloying at times. The house-shaped paper lanterns used to depict the stationery store where Dwight works are pretty but a little twee, while the hair braiding scene is just plain odd. Presumably, it is part of Dead Man’s Cell Phone’s quirky branch of comedy which can be a bit hit and miss. The fight between Jean and Carlotta is silly without being funny and the dinner scene feels stilted in places. On the other hand, a dark joke about a sushi chef’s former career is well-timed and Hermia’s random career change has the audience laughing out loud purely because it’s so random. The signs held up to signal scene changes also work well next to the actors’ deadpan faces.

Unfortunately, Dead Man’s Cell Phone doesn’t quite manage to sustain its momentum. Jean’s actions when she discovers what Gordon did for a living make little sense even within the absurd world of the play and the ending is far too drawn out. Dead Man’s Cell Phone would have felt less choppy if it had finished with the scenes depicting Gordon’s spiritual pipeline. This would have been a much stronger and far more powerful ending than the one the show eventually arrives at. The play’s themes of communication and technology could have also been integrated into the action more naturally, but these are all faults of Ruhl’s writing and UCLU Runaground can’t be blamed for them.

Overall, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a hugely enjoyable romp with wonderfully morbid undertones, but its uneven pace and some aimless scenes during the show’s second half let it down.

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