FOLLOWING A hugely successful season at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Reduced Shakespeare Company arrive in the Town Hall Theatre next week as part of their roistering new tour of The Complete History of Comedy (abridged ).
Yes that is right, the bad boys of abridgement finally tackle the subject they were always destined to reduce. From the heady and high-brow to the louche and the low, The Complete History of Comedy (abridged ) covers comedy all through the ages, from Aristophanes and Shakespeare to vaudeville, Charlie Chaplin to present-day sitcoms. From cavemen telling “Rock Rock” jokes to Chris Rock and everything in-between, the company leaves no joke untold as they both deconstruct and celebrate the entire history of comedy.
Why Abraham Lincoln is a stand-up
Since its formation in 1981, the Reduced Shakespeare Company has created nine stage shows, two television specials, and numerous radio pieces. The company’s first three shows, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged ), The Complete History of America (abridged ), and The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged ) enjoyed a nine-year run at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus. Not only were they London’s longest-running comedies, but at one point the Reduced Shakespeare Company had more shows running in the West End than Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“This is my second tour with the company,” Matthew Pearson, one of the cast members for the current tour, tells me over an afternoon phone conversation. “I joined in 2012 for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged ) so this is the first new RSC show I’ve done. The other cast members for this tour are Gary Fannin who is an RSC old hand, he’s been involved with them for nearly 20 years, on and off, and there are two newbies as well, Steven Rostance, and Andrew Hodges.”
I ask Matthew if he had a grounding in comedy prior to joining the Reduced Shakespeare Company. “Not really,” he replies, “but I was in the stage version of The Thirty Nine Steps and there is a lot of comic business in that similar to what we do in this show.”
Matthew expands on just what the RSC do in their onstage dissection and reduction of comedy. “We start with the original joke which is, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ and then we go through history to how everyone told that joke. We start with the ancient Greeks and the cavemen and proceed up to Samuel Beckett, and we do a post-modernism take on it. That is our starting point and then we go on to cover mime, commedia dell’arte, stand-up comedy, satire, Chekhov – who said his plays were comedies, though not everyone might think that. We treat them like the original sitcom, like Friends.”
The show packs in just about the whole gamut of comical expression; speed costume changes, plenty of props, a recreation of a silent movie, a crash course in improv entailing audience participation, custard pies, and even a song played on the ukulele saluting famous comics of yore.
One surprising historical comic the company feature in the show is Abraham Lincoln. “We have Abraham Lincoln as the inventor of stand-up comedy,” Matthew reveals. “He was actually a very witty man and delivered lots of great one-liners so he definitely merits his place in our history of comedy.”
The serious nature of comedy
Written and directed by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, The Complete History of Comedy (abridged ) has been delighting critics and audiences alike, with The Stage observing that “this show proves that the Reduced Shakespeare Company have not lost their touch or their remarkable energy”, while The British Theatre Guide declared that “the trio deliver 70 minutes filled with laughter to a delighted audience.”
Several critics have commented on the fact that, amid all the hilarity ,the show also cleverly weaves in some serious thoughts on the nature of comedy. To quote one review, the show has “a sincerity about the history of their art, especially when they combine genuine information with related sketches such as the summary of the main characters in Commedia dell’Arte.” Matthew acknowledges that there is a smattering of seriousness in the show.
“We’ve done the Bible, we’ve done Shakespeare, the History of America, and now it was time to do something really serious to us, which is comedy,” he says. “However, when you analyse comedy it dies, so we have tried to stay away from that and we just tried to cover all the comedies we possibly can in history. We also talk about how comedy can help make the world a better place, and that is where the seriousness can come into play.”
Seeing as the show covers the entire history of comedy, I ask Matthew what are his own favourite comedies? “I really like films like Airplane and Naked Gun,” he replies, citing comic classics that would fit right into the RSC’s current show.
The show’s Town Hall date is the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s only appearance with this tour in the Republic of Ireland, so Galway audiences can consider themselves very fortunate indeed to be so favoured. To quote from one other review of the show: “The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged ) offers a wide range of opinions about comedy. These include the Freudian suggestion that comedy, being a way of expressing forbidden thoughts, is healthy. Jesters traditionally serve a vital role of telling truth to power. The undeniable conclusion is, however, that funny is simply funny. This show is very funny.”
The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged ) is at the Town Hall on Tuesday April 14 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie