Raising the Stakes

Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood
Customs House, South Shields
(2004)

I find myself in that quandary which confronts the critic from time to time, the quandry that arises from one's own reaction to a production being totally different to that of the audience. The first night audience for Raising the Stakes howled with laughter and words and phrases like "excellent" and "best thing I've ever seen" were flying around the bar afterwards, and yet...

Herein lies the quandary, for it is not a good play. It's a good laugh, certainly, but it's a good laugh because it's a string of one-liners performed with tremendous energy by a cast who worked their socks off, led by a director (Dolores Porretta-Brown) who has managed to build what will almost certainly turn out to be a popular edifice on very shaky foundations.

Does the critic simply record the audience reaction, mention the performances, and leave it at that, or should he follow what his own reactions tell him and rate the play by his standards? Or perhaps he should adjust his viewpoint and review as he would a piece of stand-up comedy?

If the latter, then I would have to end here, for I don't feel qualified to review stand-up. On the other hand, this was presented as a play...

You see my problem?

Plays - comedies - set out to do more than simply make people laugh. The best plays, whatever their genre, take us beyond our immediate reactions to illuminate, make a comment, reveal. They enable us to see something of our lives, or even of life itself, and they do it by presenting us with real (but not necessarily naturalistic) characters in situations which could be commonplace or extraordinary or anywhere between. When they are led by anything other than the characters - whether by plot, a political idea, the desire to make us laugh: whatever - then they become less than a play: they become storytelling, agit-prop or "having a laugh".

Even if the characters are over the top (or even bizarre: think Basil Fawlty), the comedy arises from them, not from a series of situations engineered by the writer to "get a laugh". In The Germans a party of German guests arrive at Fawlty Towers and that is enough: the character of Basil is what gives rise to the hilarious comedy that follows. There is no need for the writer to create "funny" situations or provide jokes.

The problem with Raising the Stakes is that it continually contrives situations to get in another gag, squeeze out another laugh. It's good entertainment but not good drama. Once the laughter has died, there's nothing left, just the memory of having had a good laugh. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I'm a critic: my function is to consider, to set what I see in its context, to relate what I see in a theatre to my understandng of what theatre is. In other words, I want more than Raising the Stakes gave me!

And if, in that, I am out of step with the audience, then so be it.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan