A Joke

Assembly Rooms

Some stalwarts of sci-fi are here in the Burgh to put on a show about an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, but is it any good or is all just one big joke?

Initially, when I first heard this show was coming to town I was genuinely intrigued with the talent that was headlining it. When I was a lad Sylvester McCoy was on my TV screen performing as the hero of that British institution “Doctor Who”. My older brother introduced me to him, and even though some of those episodes were extremely graphic and gave me the heebie jeebies, I was always coerced to watch an episode here and there due to McCoy’s whimsical ways. He was very much ‘my Doctor’. But as a teenager I developed quite an interest in Joe Dante films and one character actor who would appear in almost all his films was Robert Picardo. I don’t know what it is about Picardo but he totally owns his roles. Usually he most often plays characters who follow the rules, prim and proper types. But he gives them such an energy, one could even say a swagger that no wonder he was Dante’s muse (or was that Dick Miller?)

And I think it’s thanks to these earlier roles, that he ended up playing a holographic doctor in “Star Trek” or a conflicted bureaucrat in “Stargate”. So it’s very interesting to see Picardo play against type here.

Our tale involves three men who appear in a realm that’s all in white and they’re all clad the same even down to them sporting matching goatees. They don’t know who they are, what they’re doing here and overall think that they are trapped within some gigantic joke! We already probably felt like that about life at some stage. And as they work themselves through this adventure they begin to very much embrace the constraints of joke telling being put upon their character. John Bett plays the Englishman, who is sort of a dark enabler, the one who likes to tell you “I told you so” and who always likes to have the last weary laugh. McCoy is the Irishman, who is quite whimsical but has a positive outlook on discovering the answer behind their situation. And then there’s Picardo as the Scotsman. I like the fact that he doesn’t even try to change his accent, as he one of Americans whose great, great, great, great ancestor may have been Scottish, and so that is how he identifies himself!

Initially, I was a little unsure about Picardo, when he first appears he comes across as a well-meaning but lackwitted individual and I thought it came across as a bit too broad. But as the play develops so too does his character and it’s interesting to see the metamorphosis at work. The script has been written by Dan Freeman and I think he had very much McCoy in mind for this role, as old Sly does have a lot of his Doctorish mannerism at work, and I’m not just talking about his whimsical nature. Which is something the actor brings naturally to the role, but more in the realm of his plotting and analysing of his circumstances and his use of quirky experiments to uncover the truth of their predicament. Which is ironic, as when Freeman did actually write for McCoy in Doctor Who, it was pretty much all over the place! But I have to admit it’s probably Bett who is the standout player here. Almost as if his character is in on the joke, that he knows that a lot of people will be coming just to see McCoy and Piccardo because of their cult status – it’s even joked about in the show! But this does give him a lot of leeway to totally create and embrace his own curmudgeon and mean spirited kind of figure, who is very much the true voice of reason within this tale. McCoy and Piccardo do genuinely make a fine double act. And I’d certainly like to see them collaborate again on something in the future.

“A Joke” in all its existential glory is a fine piece of work, it does take a little while to get going but as well as being full of laughs, it does take you to some dark and surreal places too. And as a show, it certainly gets the last laugh.

Markus Helbig.