Review of ‘The Last Laugh’: “Too silly for the dumb”

Acclaimed playwright Richard Harris brings to the stage this comedic though insightful reflection on human values and life priorities, first coined on paper by Japanese writer Koki Mitani. Guillermo Názara reviews this new production by Take Note Theatre, to let us know what’s in store in this tale of artistic persecution by an oppressive government.

“Life is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think”. But in a time where the fear of offending (or more precisely, hearing back from the offended ones) takes a bigger toll than the ability to reason, never before has the old saying “the world is controlled by idiots” been more accurate and appropriate. Molière’s sage words shed more than sharp (and somehow, hopeful) light on such a frustrating situation – they are also the reflection of a bright playwright on another equally bright playwright. From content to style, the similiarities among Harris and the originator of actors’ greatest colour-related superstition are all there. They both know how to turn authorities into a joke (that not being the hardest task in their repertoire), they both how to pace. They’re prone to give you a smile (and a cackle), they’re prone for their work to be immortalized.

Set in a fictious totalitarian state (its only difference from reality being the kind of dictator taking over), The Last Laugh is probable one of the best portrayal of humankind’s darkest side through the apparent lightheartedness of comedy. Based on the previous Japanese theatrical work Warai No Daigaku (‘University of Laughs’) by Kōki Mitani (let’s pretend you didn’t read the summary), the play is in essence a metaphor of many kinds: from the current unstable political situatios to the mindsets of many people in general – and the aggressive scenario this has led to for several years now.

Structured as a series of discussions between an advocate for humour (The Writer) and a robotic defender of law and order (The Censor), The Last Laugh is, in fact and all truth, a phylosophical dialogue challenging the seriousness of matters and the importance we place on them. Beginning with the two men’s first encounter when a play is submitted for the regime’s approval, the plot seamlessly develops into a deeper (and hilarious) conversation exploring the core of clashing principles as well as the craftsmanship of writing and theatre itself. And maybe once and for all (or maybe just as a starting point) providing with an answer with the unsolved (to a few, that is) question of what’s the purpose of art.

Directed by Nick Bromely (an acquaintance of the London scene in many forms for six decades), the show achieves to make the audience roar from practically its first minute – though at the same time managing to build up both a narrative and comedic rhythm that flawlessly speeds up and increases in intensity throughout the course of the performance. Though the transitions from scene to scene could be improved (the only gaps being time-related as everything happens in the same room), the use of the space is anyway cleverly and effectively organised – an effort shared also by designers Rob Miles and Pat McMahon, transforming the stage into a window to another reality which, in this piece, may be more truthful than the one we usually bear with.

With a cast comprising only two actors (plus a brief very awkward -though quite funny- cameo by somebody from behind the scenes -I assume-), both writing and direction succeed at overcoming its biggest defiance – make it work and interesting with such limited resources and so little (or perhaps so much) to feed from. Regardless of such soundness, the test keeps on for whoever dares walk on what’s still a loose (though thick) tightrope. Fortunately, this team is well accustomed to this sort of acrobatics, since they’re presence, palpable chemistry and infectous comedy bone are nothing but a pleasure to watch. Out of the duo, the highest praise is fairly earned by David Tarkenter as The Censor, not only for his shining elocution as an actor, but his intoxicating magnestism – capable of getting the impossible: make you laugh your head off through utter seriousness. Matt Wake, on his side as The Writer, gives an enjoyable rendition that, although in need of some tweaking to make it more believable, presents a nice balance to his counterpart.

For some reason, we’ve been taught that funny things are stupid while solemnity is the highest form of intelligence. It may be another sign of how right the phrase I quoted in the beginning of this review is – for only an idiot couldn’t see the wit and skillfulness required to make people grin and giggle. Luckily, pieces such as The Last Laugh not only provide us with a nice couple of hours to escape whatever makes us sad or at least make our time a little bit more amusing, but also an opportunity to understand how necessary these chances are – and how we should never take for granted something so inherent to our basic craves as is the art of storytelling.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

All images credited to Andreas Grieger.

The Last Laugh plays at London’s Theatre at the Tabard until 3 December. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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