November 01, 1987

Acting Funny

Acting Funny
Rowan Atkinson
Opera Theatre.

It is often said that what makes comedy tick is timing. And Rowan Atkinson is expert at it. His performance is rehearsed down to the last pucker, the lines scan like iambic pentameters and it all works like a charm.

As part of the highly successful Not The Nine O’Clock News team, Atkinson’s comedy was distinctively visual and oddly endearing. He can, and has, sparred in more savage comic arenas with the pugnacious Mel Smith and the baleful John Cleese but, as his present solo show indicates, Atkinson himself prefers punchlines in a velvet glove.

It is interesting to wonder what he would do without the Church of England and English public schools. Not only does he rely heavily on them for subject matter but the liturgical diction of the witless cleric and the sarcastic intonations of sadistic schoolmasters are virtually his stock-in-trade.

He opens with a eulogy to a luckless trio -one deaf, one blind and one mute who fail to hear, see and warn each other of an oncoming combine harvester. Jokes about physical impairment are delivered with such starchy gravity that Atkinson is already further down the track before we’ve realised how close to the prosthetic bone they really are.

Further into the show he is joined by Angus Deayton, an Oxford crony from the rock-satire band, the Heebie Jeebies, who apart from bearing an uncanny resemblance to John Cleese, provides a disciplined foil to Atkinson’s more flamboyant physicality. He is particularly memorable as the incredulous parent being informed by a Scottish headmaster that his son has been thrashed to death for taking books from the library before the cards have been removed.

On with a lame jacket and Atkinson is crooning an almost-funny spoof ballad spiked with well-chosen local references. We were then back to the rotten boroughs of the UK with Sir Jonathan Thump, a retread of the blithering Tory, Sir Marcus Browning, from the Live at Belfast album.

The Invisible Man gooses a commuter with neatly choreographed slapstick while Atkinson cleverly extracts optimum laughs from a predictable sketch of a football coach haranguing his team for losing 37-nil at half time.

In an extended silent skit, Atkinson, the inimitable schoolboy, peers and squirms about in endlessly inventive attempts to crib the answers from another candidate in a trig exam. Again, the precision and detail is a delight as is the intricate narrative of an Indian waiter serving a table of insensate soccer hooligans.

In the second half, Atkinson plays a disgruntled nominee for a film award, a ludicrous alien in Dr Who lurex and an excruciating TV presenter shredding paper in what proves to be a calamitous attempt to create origami figures. Dusting off an old favourite Atkinson’s Devil reads from his clipboard the various categories of new arrivals- Mormons, bank managers, Americans, atheists. The delivery is impeccable; with refinement Richard Curtis’s material has become a perfect sketch.

After an encore consisting of the news in mime, Rowan Atkinson moved into his favourite vocal register with his Roll Call -a tour de force of silly noms- Undermanager, Orifice, Ellsworth-Beast major – frighteningly deadpan and theatrically unerring.

Rowan Atkinson says he won’t be doing any one-man shows after this one. Instead he’s off to do a season of Chekhov and even, perhaps, the Marlon Brando role in The Tea House of the August Moon!

Atkinson is a comic actor rather than a stage comedian and says, for instance, that he is a great admirer of Barry Humphries and the way he gets inside the skin of his characters. Except that when Atkinson does it he manages to move his face round to the back of his head and keep his epidermis in almost perpetual motion.

With material by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton (The Young Ones and Filthy Rich and Catflap) Rowan Atkinson has some great lines to get his amazing mandibles around. But that’s not the secret. It’s the fact that there’s very little spit and so much polish which makes him fun to watch.

“Acting Funny” The Adelaide Review,No.44, November 1987, np.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment