What’s so funny about that? The opening question of Jumping the Shark is basically ‘can you teach people to be funny?’ The set-up is a comedy writing course led by once-great sitcom writer Frank (David Schaal) and delivered to a motley crew of delegates none of whom seem like the types Channel 4 are desperately looking to commission.
You have Essex geezer Dale (Jack Trueman) – a man who is actually more passionate about kitchens than comedy, but who is very much a legend in his own lunchtime. He’s joined by housewife Pam (Sarah Moyle) whose frumpy (a word I hate incidentally, but we are talking about sitcom archetypes here) demeanour hides something much sharper. Then there is Gavin (Robin Sebastian) an over-the-hill lovey who may be less interested in writing than he is in showcasing his talents to Frank. Morgan (Harry Visinoni) is a rhyming enigma. He’s young, he’s cool and it’s not completely clear at first what he’s doing there. And finally, there’s Amy – or is it Abs – (Jasmine Armfield) who demonstrates wit and insight from the start but may well have an ulterior motive for being there.
The story of Jumping the Shark is relatively thin. The characters each go on their own journey all within the self-contained world of a residential weekend writing course. But this thinness doesn’t detract at all from the joy of the piece. In fact, it’s almost elemental to it. This is a play written about sitcoms by people who clearly love sitcoms and understand the genre very well. The early monologue from Frank introducing us to the course is littered with references from the classics that fans will love, but it also does a superb job of grounding us in that world. This play is longer than a 30-minute sitcom but it exists with and enjoys the same conventions. Complexity would be to break that world, not to luxuriate in it.
So then it is a real tribute to the play that the characters are so well-rounded, human and relatable. There were moments of pathos (a vital sitcom ingredient) for each but also moments of connection. With each other and with the audience. By the end, I really cared about their fates. I liked them all (even the generally unlikable Dale – which took really important and subtle work from Trueman).
Jumping the Shark is an utterly charming production. It does as a good play and a good sitcom should. It set up the characters in the first half in a fairly traditional manner and then played with our expectations of both them and the form delightfully in the second half. The payoff was obvious, but important and closed this short sharp look into a beautifully developed world with just the right – and appropriate – amount of sentimental satisfaction.
- Written by David Cantor and Michael Kingsbury
- Directed by Michael Kingsbury
- Cast includes: Jasmine Armfield, Sarah Moyle, David Schaal, Robin Sebastian, Jack Trueman, Harry Visinoni
- Upstairs at the Gatehouse
- Until 12th March 2023
- Time: 19.30. Sat & sundat matinee 16.00
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