Set in a bland and anonymous hotel the story finds five characters arriving for a weekend course on writing a sitcom, to be taken by one-time hugely successful writer Frank (David Schaal). Anyone who has ever attended a training course will instantly recognise the depressing effect a flip chart can have on any room. Also the awkward first introductions to your fellow course members. The five characters here all have different reasons for being on the course and as they arrive this provides a neat and efficient way of setting them up. In fact much of the first part is structured and played so exactly like a training course that you begin to feel part of it yourself. Tutor Frank’s opening introduction to his class also effectively includes the audience as, in a tour de force monologue, he references numerous classic moments from sitcoms and describes the key rules of writing them. This includes the meaning of the phrase ‘Jumping the Shark’. While it’s helpful to have this explained (it refers to the point when a once successful show has run out of ideas so introduces a totally fantastical situation – with the Fonz in Happy Days literally jumping, on water skies, over a shark as the apotheosis of the theory) it does worry me that using this as the play’s title may put some people off buying a ticket if they’re not already aware of its meaning.
With the numbing training course atmosphere being so meticulously created and a lot of character groundwork being laid for, as we subsequently discover, payoffs in Act Two, this does leave Act One struggling for laughs. As the students are sent off with an assignment to write their own sitcom scene we are sent off to the bar to contemplate whether analysing comedy in this way can also result in comedy being created.
Fortunately Act Two swiftly demonstrates that it can. It’s as tightly structured as the first half, with each delegate’s own sitcom acted out, using their fellow course members as the cast. This allows us the luxury of effectively meeting a whole new cast of characters as the play-within-a-play motif takes off. At one point one of the sitcoms even begins with an actor reading through his lines with his landlady – so a play-within-a-play-within-a-play. Best not go too far down that rabbit hole! The delegates obviously do what all new writers are told they should and write what they know. So by referencing things we’ve learned about them and their lives in Act One the payoffs I mentioned come thick and fast in Act Two. This is properly funny stuff with the laughs coming from character in a genuine way. And also from terrific performances by the versatile company of Jack Truman, Jasmine Armfield, Harry Visinoni, Robin Sebastian and Sarah Moyle. It does seems to me, though, that if the delegates can come up with such clever writing overnight, they probably don’t need to be on a course about writing comedy. But the play is written by experienced comedy writers David Cantor and Michael Kingsbury (with such credits as My Family and Two Pints of Lager & a Packet of Crisps). Are they using their play to pitch a series of ideas for a new sitcom, hoping one may get picked up for a pilot? Who knows, but all the sketches have legs and laughs a-plenty.
At first I thought the more serious first half felt in need of more humour and pace. But taken as a whole, I think it’s the right thing for it to be more serious and credible. Comedy surely works best when it’s grounded in reality. The first half gives us that reality. That is what allows the writers to take us off in bizarre and outlandish situations – because whatever they subsequently do or say, we believe the reality of the world their characters inhabit.
This is not a play only for sitcom nerds, although if you are one you will enjoy the theme tunes played before the play begins. It’s a play about comedy which shows how the semi-tragic or poignant reality of people’s lives can, with the slightest of tweaks, become a potential sitcom.
Jumping the Shark is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford util Saturday 25 February 2023 then continues on tour.