Man about Eastbourne has long been a visitor to matinee performances of plays by touring companies locally, at the Devonshire Park Theatre, and slightly less frequently at the Congress Theatre. Some that stick in the memory over the past ten years, mostly for the right reasons, include: Three Men in a Boat, Charlie’s Aunt, Rebecca, a particularly fine Twelfth Night set in India, Flare Path and Blithe Spirit. The very first Man about Eastbourne post, dated October 3rd, 2018 was about Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s review/play The Wipers Times. His latest afternoon theatrical visits were to two comedies: Octopus Soup and The Comedy about a Bank Robbery.
Both plays attended claim that they are in the mould of two fairly recent West End and touring comedy hits: One Man, Two Guv’nors and The Play that Goes Wrong. I’ve not seen the latter. I didn’t catch the London run of O.M.T.G. (with James Corden) but I did see it at the Theatre Royal, Brighton and it was positively side-splitting, so I had high hopes. Sadly these were not fulfilled in either case.
Octopus Soup (***) was at the Devonshire Park. I love the Theatre but there are disadvantages with matinees (particularly comedy matinees) here. In the afternoons audiences tend to be small and rather reserved. It seems to me that the majority of them have not lunched out and are in urgent need of a glass or two of wine to loosen the laughter muscles. I think if I were putting on an afternoon performance of a comedy here I would get sponsorship from a vodka shot company and provide free samples to the audience as they enter. Under these circumstances it was difficult for the accomplished actors to give of their best and I’m sure my three star rating might have been higher with a packed house and in an evening show. Octopus Soup is written by stand-up comic Jack Milner and broadcaster and “futurologist” Mark Stevenson. It has an inventive, if far-fetched, plot about an insurance salesman, Seymour (Nick Hancock, sometime host of Room 101 and They Think it’s All Over) who is forced to agree to a scam by a hopeless burglar, Marvyn (well characterised by Paul Bradley) whereby Seymour is able to tell his boss Virginia where and when burglaries (carried out by Marvyn) will happen in a particular area. Marvyn also has a pet octopus, Terry, in the boot of his car. In the second act there is a dinner party where the starter is to be a squid soup. Terry is brought in to the house but escapes from his tank. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. It sounds potentially very funny but it never really seems to gel. Strangely the acting in itself seems good, so perhaps it’s the writing and a rather straight laced audience that were at fault.
Just over three weeks later your man went to another Eastbourne matinee, this time at the newly refurbished Congress Theatre. The play on offer was in a direct line of succession from the multi award winning The Play that Goes Wrong. Perhaps, having seen that play in Eastbourne or during its long and successful run in London, the Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy about a Bank Robbery drew a near capacity audience despite being in the afternoon. I cannot comment on how they lunched before the performance but many, though certainly not all, seemed to enjoy the show. It features a bunch of Canadian escaped prisoners and the gaolers who head across the border into Minneapolis to rob a bank. The main comic material is quick fire, often very corny, word play. This is mostly shouted in not very good American accents and is often so quick that the audience find it difficult to keep up and miss much of it (and I don’t think that was just me). Far more appreciated were some basic visual jokes, including much fun with a tip up folding wall bed. There is also a clever scene where the robbers enter the bank through the roof and they (and the audience) are able to look “down” on the bank employees at their desks. They are actually sitting suspended on the back wall of the stage. As always I suppose, but even more so here, it’s very much a question of what you find funny. It did raise a few smiles from me (and a rather grudging *** rating), and many seemed to very much enjoy it. On the other hand there were quite a number of empty seats after the interval. If you are thinking of going (and the tour heads to Dublin, Edinburgh, Sheffield and Liverpool over the next few weeks, as well as continuing to run the Criterion Theatre in London) I suggest you read the very varied audience reactions that accompany the Time Out review on line.