Review: SUDS’ Is This Thing On?

A stand-up comedy night reveals painful truths about stasis and stagnation

For their latest play, SUDS transformed the Cellar Theatre into a comedy club complete with the palpable energy and raucous laughter typical of such an establishment. However, hidden beneath the veneer of laughs were unsettling realities about mediocrity and stagnation—themes which grew more pronounced as the drama unfolded.

Written by actor-comedian Zoë Coombs Marr, Is This Thing On? introduces Brianna, a stand-up comic who, when we first meet her, has a number of gripes: her love life, her sharehouse, her name. We get a sense that she is using comedy as a means of therapy; a way to articulate and grapple with the many uncertainties in her life.

As the next comic comes on stage, we feel a strange sense of déjà vu, as the same punchlines are recycled and the same scenarios set up. Aided by clever dialogue and characterisation, we slowly come to realise that each comic represents Brianna at different points in her life, perpetually making her same, old life issues into jokes without ever making a serious effort to find a resolution for them. It’s a familiar topic which is afforded a new perspective by the play’s structure and the central conceit of multiple Briannas.

Brianna aged 35 (Kate Wilkins) is a crass and hilarious host, who handles audience interaction (and her Heineken) like a professional. She sets the tone for the evening high, and it is carried on nicely by Brianna aged 22 (Sophie Peppernell) and 27 (Zoë Sitas), who bring individual flair while retaining an element of continuity, allowing the audience to see Brianna’s outlook on life as it transforms through the ages. When the three come together, their chemistry makes for high octane, charisma-fuelled interactions.

The play’s biggest strength is the actors’ natural delivery. The cast manage to deliver carefully crafted dialogue in an unrehearsed, nonchalant manner, which is a huge feat, not least when you consider that the directors (Keshini De Mel & Madeleine Gandhi) and cast had just 30 days from casting till showtime to perfect their comic timing.

In contrast to ‘traditional’ theatre, there was a sense that the actors were responding to the audience, and the play was truly live. In conjunction with detailed set cues, strong in-character work from the actors built up the reality of the setting, a crucial factor in allowing the audience to identify with Brianna. It’s also for this reason that some group chorus work fell flat—these scenes briefly took us away from the unpolished basement club and too strongly propounded the central question about feeling stuck in perpetual stasis, which had already been more subtly explored.

This was but a minor gripe which didn’t detract from a cast who, otherwise, moved from strength to strength. Brianna aged 60 (Courtney Henson) brought wit and pathos in equal parts to her performance. Her routine, carefully punctuated with silences, drew us closer to Brianna’s feelings of stasis and created a sense of deep discomfort, juxtaposed against the garish blue-purple lights.

As Brianna reveals more of herself to the audience, stripping back the vulnerability that necessarily comes with stand-up comedy, her performance dissolves into reality until it’s unclear which is which. Brianna’s climactic moment of tragic realisation is well constructed and impactful: her 16-year-old self (Sarah Doyle) is completely exposed and consumed by her fear that the audience might not be laughing with her, but at her.

With Is This Thing On?, De Mel and Gandhi aimed to highlight female voices and the female experience in entertainment and beyond. The all-female cast and largely female crew explored important issues in creative ways, along with less serious topics, includings an incredible comedy song about cleaning the shower. And stage manager Natalie Leung stole the show with a mirror ball.

SUDS’ production of Is This Thing On? sold out on its first two nights, a testament to the play’s truthful account of self-doubt and its hilarious celebration of the female experience, telling the audience not to take life too seriously: to look for the jokes.