Solo character comedy is an incredibly difficult genre to pull off. It’s something of a halfway house between stand-up and sketch comedy, and often tests the bounds of credulity – not least because in real life, it’s rare for one person addresses themselves uninterrupted to an audience. But here it makes a kind of sense: Jane Postlethwaite’s characters are all fun caricatures of Cumbrian natives who, presumably through isolation or something in that Lake District water, have become rather batty.
There’s a narrative joining these characters together, though it’s quite loose. Linking sketches in this way isn’t necessarily productive, and the organising structure of this particular show didn’t add much in the way of laughs; it was frankly also a little difficult to follow, jumping between the present and the past without much clarity. I think the show might actually have benefited from cutting the narrative altogether and simply allowing the Cumbrian-ness to be the common thread.
For me, the two scenes that succeeded most were a series of questions from a radio call-in to the first woman astronaut from the UK, and a hilarious piece of mask work. They stand out for the same reason: the characters get to interact with other voices, and both are tightly focused on a particular idea. They also featured levity, texture and absurdity over ostentatious “darkness”, in contrast to many other scenes where we were overtly told (rather than shown) that the characters were lonely or depressed.
There’s a perception out there that dark is synonymous with funny, and the audience on the final night was indeed very warm and receptive. But I can only report my own reaction, and I felt there was a general lack of strong jokes in this show. There was a surprising reliance on surname-related puns: Kirstie Bird the falconry expert, Mary Façade the mask practitioner, Stella Nova the astronaut and some off-the-cuff badinage based on audience names (‘Suzanne Baker! Do you bake much?’) Only one of the scenes actually ended on a punchline (a perennial challenge with sketch shows), and while there were a few zingy one-liners, I thought in general that the ratio of character to comedy was somewhat skewed.
Made in Cumbria is, as probably intended, a great showcase for Postlethwaite’s performance skills. She’s a confident and engaging presence on stage, and has good comic timing and audience rapport. I’d love to see her in a comic play, in group sketch comedy, or even on a TV panel show. But at present, I don’t think her written material is quite as strong as her performance potential – making the whole experience just a little superficial.