A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit…* @ Finborough Theatre

Written by Halley Feiffer
Directed by Bethany Pitts
Featuring Cara Chase, Robert Crouch, Cariad Lloyd, and Kristin Milward.
Presented by Arsalan Sattari Productions in association with Neil McPherson
Tuesday, 2 October – Saturday, 27 October 2018

*Okay, so the full title of this piece was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, but that made this post title far too long!
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Set design by Isabella Van Braeckel. Photo by James O Jenkins

My experience of the pub theatre scene in London has spanned an eclectic mix of plays, from tried-and-true classics to material still in the rough work-in-progress stages, from the clever to the dumb, high calibre to low. A Funny Thing… was easily the highest quality piece of theatre I’ve seen in this range.

From the moment the plasticky pastel green divider curtains are pulled aside to reveal an excellently-executed hospital ward, complete with two patients who remain slumbering in their identical beds throughout the majority of the play. Isabella Van Braeckel is to be commended on her flawless set design, which is not only hyper-convincing but also features wonderfully sardonic touches such as the winkingly vaginal abstract artworks on the walls.

As the play starts to develop, however, the dialogue is quickly revealed to be less convincing and realistic than the set. Characters Karla and Don meet in the gynecologic oncology unit where they are both visiting their (probably) dying mothers; she is a young, foul-mouthed millenial who works as a stand-up comedian, and he is an awkward middle-aged slob with an unstable temperament. Their initial interaction is explosively confrontational, and the following 180-pivot of their their relationship also beggars belief, particularly since a lack of onstage chemistry makes it feel somewhat forced. As the characters rush to bare the crevices of their minds in all their filth and generosity, I couldn’t help feeling a slight British distaste for what seemed like a very American type of candid emotional display, with all the subtlety and hidden meaning of a sledgehammer.

Kristin Milward - Photos by James O Jenkins.jpg

Kristin Milward as Marcie. Photo by James O Jenkins

That said, as the play progressed and it became clear that it was to be a sustained artistic and thematic choice, this brutal honesty and unflinching examination of its characters’ psyches grew on me. The three individuals of Don, Karla, and her mother Marcie are revealed to be riddled with flaws, yet each has their own vulnerability, inner strength, and moments of shining kindness. Each grows as a person during the course of the play, and learns to form stronger, healthier connections with those around them. And along the way, they are harshly hilarious – particularly Kristin Milward as Marcie, who managed to steal scenes despite being confined to a bed and drip and, largely, unconscious. For every snarky burn or crass joke, there is a witty observation, a crackle of deliciously dark humour, or a burst of shared joy, and it is in these moments that the play is at its strongest.

My enjoyment of this clever comedy was only slightly marred by a sprinkling of unnecessary shock-value jokes; for the most part, the play was “edgy” in a good way, but it did occasionally cross the line into ableism or homophobia which didn’t add anything to the value of the play. Although these cracks detracted slightly from the moral weight of the play, they can at least be partially justified by the fact that none of its characters are, especially at the beginning, particularly good people.

Overall, A Funny Thing is an excellent, funny, poignant new piece of dark comedy and social commentary from American playwright Halley Feiffer. I felt buoyed by every shameless celebration of female sexuality and masculine vulnerability, and touched by the emotional rawness of these complicated relationships. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart… but in the end, for a show that is largely about death, disease, and dissatisfaction with life, there is a remarkable amount of cautious optimism and love woven in.

Tickets.

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Cariad Lloyd, Rob Crouch - Photos by James O Jenkins.jpg

Cariad Lloyd and Robert Crouch as Karla and Don. Photo by James O Jenkins

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