'Brian & Roger - A Highly Offensive Play' review - the beloved podcast brings laughter and tears to the stage
We all know someone that spouts rubbish to appear cool as a way of masking their vulnerabilities. But what if that person sent you on a constant string of wild goose chases in the hopes of getting rich quick? Giving advice comes easy for Brian, and a bumbling Roger is all too eager to listen. These two men may have met at a support group for recently divorced men, but it’s quickly apparent they need more than weekly sessions to help one another.
The Brian & Roger podcast first aired in 2018, following the two title characters who deal with their break-ups in irrational ways. Now in its fifth season, the Daily Telegraph has hailed the podcast the "best British comedy happening right now". So it’s no wonder then that in the age of podcasts, this smash-hit show would find a new home onstage — the debut show at the Menier Chocolate Factory’s smaller Mixing Room space. Making the most of this intimate space, Brian & Roger is a two-hour farcical two-hander that flies by, thanks to its tender moments and clever commentary.
Told in an epistolary format through phone conversations, Brian and Roger share their current situations with one another, starting off candidly before turning up the dial. Brian’s living in student accommodations to get by after splitting from his wife. Roger’s living in an 82-year-old’s flat, sleeping on the sofa and trying to see his son, Jamie, more. Dealing with their situations with different levels of success, Roger is often calling on Brian for advice, which Brian is more than happy to give through ludicrous financial schemes. Attend a seance and pretend to be Nicolae Ceaușescu. Gamble yourself away in an abattoir. The show’s plot is almost like someone’s shuffled a Cards Against Humanity deck, laid the cards out and decided the results would make a great play. And boy does it.
The reliance on phone conversations to convey the storytelling can become frustrating, diluting the show’s unpredictability. Most monologues last for around 90 seconds, before the next monologue cuts in. Even if you know when the next phone call will start, you can't predict what will happen by the end of the conversation.
Dan Skinner really does go the extra mile as Roger, playing his podcast character on stage. His versatility shines through too; one minute running through the theatre as though he’s covered in offal, to then revealing his true, tender feelings for ex-fiancée Claire. Roger’s wackiness is expertly balanced by Simon Lipkin as the crude mastermind Brian, stepping into the role just days before previews began and learning over 40 monologues in a week. It’s a shame that faithful Brian & Roger fans won’t see the podcasters together on stage, but Lipkin keeps the show moving, driving the conversations from 0-100 in seconds.
Timothy Bird’s bright, constantly changing video design makes the small theatre feel larger, with projections acting as a backdrop to each phonecall. The projections are akin to a Powerpoint presentation where animations fly in every few seconds. Sure, it’s gimmicky, but it’s fitting for this nonsensical world. Robert Jones’s costume design adds to the barminess too, with quick changes keeping the show’s pace.
The one time the actors are together, the scene is told in complete darkness, so you never actually see them by each other’s side. This scene was slightly too long to be sitting in pitch black, but it was worth it for the squeals at the end — which I won’t reveal here. Just take a tissue in advance.
“A little collateral damage shouldn’t harm the progress of the environment,” says Brian, a stand-out sentence considering this month’s Climate Change conference in Glasgow. And yes, Brian and Roger do go on some unbelievable globetrotting adventures which may have caused more damage than the results are worth. By the end of the play, these characters end up as caricatures of their former selves. But they wear their hearts on their sleeves and just want to do good. You’ll wish you could join them in their hijinks. Or just offer up actual, beneficial advice that doesn’t involve moving a village.
Photo credit: Brian & Roger - A Highly Offensive Play cast (Photo by Nobby Clark)