Jumping the Shark

David Cantor and Michael Kingsbury
Peter Frosdick and Classical Events
Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Jack Trueman as Dale, David Schaal as Frank and Harry Visinni as Morgan Credit: Robert Armstrong
Jasmine Armfield as Amy, Robin Sebastian as Gavin and Harry Visinoni as Morgan Credit: Robert Armstrong
Jasmine Armfield as Amy and Sarah Moyle as Pam Credit: Robert Armstrong

Have you ever thought you had a great idea for a TV sitcom, wondered how to turn it into a reality? You might pick up a few tips here, for that is the dream that has driven the characters in David Cantor and Michael Kingsbury’s new play to sign up for a course in scriptwriting run by old hand Frank Donohue, who is back from the States to tutor them.

It is a small but diverse group now ensconced in an hotel on the fringes of Farnham who have forked out to learn from his expertise. There is Gavin (Robin Sebastian) out of work actor still waiting for that big break; housewife Pam (Sarah Moyle) with memories of once being in a panto taking a break from a tedious marriage; loud-mouthed plumber and handyman Dale (Jack Trueman) who hides insecurity behind Essex bravado; self-politicised versifier Morgan (Harry Visinoni) caping a dominant mother and finally motor-mouthed young Amy (Jasmine Armfield) who it turns out has had a previous encounter with Donohue.

Though David Schaal’s Donoghue is relatively restrained, both the writing and Michael Kingsbury’s direction encourage very broad playing from the rest of the cast and they go at it enthusiastically. Though at first they may seem very stereotypical creations, they develop more depth as the play proceeds.

With the first act consisting of Donohue getting each of his students to come up with a situation drawn from their own experience and discussing how that might be developed and the second of the next day performance of sample scenes that they have written, the narrative comes in their individual story strands. At the same time, we see people who start off confrontationally begin to pair up and a partial unveiling of Amy and Donohue’s past connection and the truth about his life since his sitcom heyday.

What do these people learn from Donohue? That you should draw on your own experience, that comedy often has its roots in pain and a few seemingly arbitrary rules about what is funny (though with no explanation why) and a warning not to go “jumping the shark”. That’s when a writer makes a misguided attempt to generate interest in a show that is losing its audience by a gimmick that has nothing to with the the story, like a scene in US TV series Happy Days when Henry Winkler’s Fonz appeared to water-ski jump over a shark.

That isn’t the problem here, there isn’t much story in the first place, though it unearths its characters’ personal problems. This could be scriptwriting as therapy and it builds its laughs in the second half. Dale’s script is already complete with sound effects and laugh tracks recorded, the surreal madness of Morgan’s episode of what he calls Kafka’s Acidic Rainbow, and Sarah Moyle’s perfect timing and instant creation of a Brummie theatrical landlady. While the comedy edges into the farcical, the humanity of David Schaal’s Frank Donohue helps to ground it.

Jumping the Shark continues its tour to Rose Theatre, Edinburgh; Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells and Haymarket, Basingstoke.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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