There’s something appealingly childlike and vulnerable about comic Rachel Mars – she made her name on the small fringe stages of London by turning up in a wolf onesie and trying to adjust the mike ‘with my paws on’. It’s with that wide-eyed insecurity that she sets out The Way You Tell Them, her one-woman show about the meaning of comedy (‘It sounds like a comedy show, but it isn’t; it’s a show about comedy’).
Loose threads of narrative weave in and out of her ‘comedy experiment’.
Pieces of Rachel’s family history make up much of the backbone. There is her own induction into comedy – a progression through different levels of joke books, the first joke she remembers telling, and a listen-again to laughs recorded from previous skits (plus a hearty guffaw from ‘the guy who came after me’). Then comes the story of Rachel’s joke-telling grandfather, his macabre death and funeral and his family’s varying reactions to these. Together with these comes the tragic history of her Jewish relatives in the Second World War.
Mixed up with everything are video clips, facts and stats (’80 per cent of audiences love fart noises’), music and stand-up.
Rachel is quick-witted and funny – her fantastically responsive audience interaction proves this. She avoids being unkind as many comics are, and instead works with the audience participants she hauls up onto the stage, making these scenes the highlights of the show.
However, it doesn’t quite hang together as a whole piece.
The more rehearsed sections let it down. A film about an AIDS medication trial that went disastrously wrong undercut with fart noises is designed to shock, clearly. But even before the farts get started, things seem a bit laboured, as if this subject had been chosen as ‘the most serious thing I could possibly think of’. The same is true of the memories of her family’s trials in the Holocaust. Personal as the story is, you still get the feeling it was picked as a ‘classic shock story’, and it feels clichéd.
Rachel is a sparky and engaging performer, and her enthusiasm never wavers over the hour – no mean feat for a solo performer seeking to cover such a vast range of emotions and topics. The lighting, music and video effects fit in smoothly and give the piece a good deal of depth.
Perhaps the problem was that it was all a bit too much – the seriousness, the comedy, the film clips, the moral dilemmas. In the end, like the self-deprecating comic herself, you end up feeling that, although all the ingredients are there, the result is just not quite satisfying.
At the start of the show, Rachel says (with great emphasis and action and in a deep growling voice) that she wants to be ‘serious but not heavy’. Unfortunately, she doesn’t quite succeed.
There are lots of laughs in this entertaining piece. But in the end, it is just a little bit heavy.