King’s Head Theatre Pub – 30th September – 24th October. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
A comedy about the ludicrous loopholes of EU funding could have been a satirical bullseye. Unfortunately Nobody’s Business misses the target completely and buries itself in bad 70s sitcom land.
Hugo is a rather dodgy businessman setting up an office in a building managed by Howard. He meets Sybil the concierge, who ends up posing as his secretary when clients turn up earlier than expected. Hugo’s scam is finding inept inventors and convincing them to apply for EU development grants, with him acting as consultant and pocketing most of the money. Throw in Hugo’s artist girlfriend and hilarity ensues… apparently.
Sylvia Freedman’s plot is predictable and full of clichés and missed opportunities for cutting humour. The characters are written one dimensionally and some jokes are hammered home so much that you expect a Basil Brush style “Boom Boom” afterwards. When the biggest point of interest in the first act is the fate of a discarded chicken tikka, and loudest laugh of the night comes from an Albanian spouting incomprehensible nonsense punctuated with “F***wits”, you know there’s something wrong. At times I was willing the actors to improvise rather than follow the clunky script.
On the King’s Head’s tiny stage there are obvious staging issues, but the decision to mark scene changes by using coloured lighting, playing “Nobody’s Business” and having the actors on stage miming and dancing like middle aged librarians at their first swingers’ party is slightly jarring. The only time this works is when Hugo joins in involuntarily – I thought someone had summoned Beetlejuice to save the day. The effects used at the end of act one are also bizarre and unsatisfactory, as if it’s been patched on from a different production.
The cast is game and committed. Katy Manning, as Sybil is delightfully ditzy at first, but as the play progresses, her character becomes simply annoying. Perhaps Freedman thought that the cod philosophical lines and revelations about Sylvia’s past would make her multidimensional, but it just doesn’t work. Manning’s constant movement around the stage doesn’t help either – seasickness begins to set in if you follow her too closely. However, Manning does a fantastic job with the material she is given – I can’t help but wonder what she and Tristan Beint (Hugo) could have achieved with a better script. Their interactions were fantastic and Beint plays slimy Hugo with just the right amount of greed, frustration and fear that makes you root for the character, even though you know you shouldn’t.
Claire Jeater as Imogen has a thankless task. Her character just has nothing to do, which is a shame, as Jeater is a fine actress. As Howard, Stephen Oswald milks every drop of comedy possible from his manchild character, and Michael Nowak as Ervin is like a young David Walliams – getting lots of laughs for his silent physical comedy. And then there’s poor Jeremy Drakes, who has to play two “hysterical” inventors – I’ve seen funnier creations in my hanky – before playing Neville the inventor of the Shopalong. There is a half decent running joke with Hugo forgetting Neville’s name, and Drakes doesn’t go over the top with his gentle portrayal of nerdy Neville.
At one point Hugo talks about EU grants fostering the need to fail, and arts grants fostering the right to fail. Well this production has flaunted its right. It is such a shame as the talented cast could be amazing. It’s just the script that needs a development grant.