It's a Fringe staple, this one: a show about putting on a show, with dressing-room tensions and technical malfunctions forming the backbone of the plot. But still, young Bristol company Deadpan Theatre have given Changing Partners a distinctive spin. In place of the usual am-dram opening night, we're behind the scenes at the final performance of a successful West End classic. It's about to transfer to Broadway, but with the star actress at loggerheads with her leading man, will everyone be making it onto the plane?
This is, in fact, an extremely accomplished script. Playwrights Artemis Howard and Eliot Salt understand the art of revealing a story, gently uncovering the characters' pasts without ever resorting to overt exposition. It's wittily-written too, filled with subtle parody and barbed asides, and there's a nicely-worked misunderstanding which drives the latter half of the plot.
But the trouble with that style of humour is that it's all to easy to miss, and - with a few commendable exceptions - the cast do very little to truly sell their lines. At one point, the leading man pretentiously refers to the "true art of the pause"; that's a funny line, but ironically, it's something the company would do well to practise themselves. The portrayals are believable and the characters are fully-realised, but this breed of heightened comedy calls for a sharper style.
The sound design is outright odd at times - witness the deeply distracting incursion of 99 Red Balloons into a crux reconciliation scene - and the whole piece is slow to get started, due in part to an unnecessary scene change right at the beginning. On the other hand, there is a clever circularity to that opening scene: pay attention to it, because what you think you're hearing may not be quite as it seems.
Among the cast, I enjoyed Diggory Waite's performance as the put-upon but strangely insightful Dan, while Benji Walters as (seeming) nice-guy Frank drew his character simply and well. In the end, I had to work too hard to follow the humour, but Deadpan Theatre seems a young and capable company with a couple of excellent scriptwriters. I'll look forward to seeing what they deliver next time.