Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

Thursday, 5 April, 2007

It's unusual if not unique to find the strange affliction 'narcolepsy' turning up in any kind of theatrical endeavour. But if there's a genre for it, I suppose it ought to be comedy, even though it is a serious and somewhat dangerous condition. I first came across this peculiar medical oddity during a conversation with a friend's father who suddenly and inexplicably fell asleep while talking to me. As one who has a tendency to bore the pants off most people, that didn't surprise me too much. But sometime later, I caught a documentary showing a small dog running in a park and then suddenly falling over in a deep sleep. Strange, but true, as they say.

I'm not at all sure why Greg Freeman decided to give narcolepsy a leading role in his play 'Wake Up and Smell The Coffee' - apart from the fact that it lingers in a way in the title. In fact, there's not much that I really did understand about this play, or the odd assortment of characters portrayed, who didn't seem to have any explicable motivations apart from sex, vegetarianism, sex, divorce, sex, sex and, er, sex. In fact, even narcoleptic sex puts in an appearance - thankfully, only in conversation rather in stark, full-frontal reality.

Not surprisingly perhaps, given the title, the play is set in a coffee shop, complete with those style-conscious pseudo-leather chairs and sofa which seem to appeal to a certain type of customer - those with an insatiable desire for caffeine, or to be seen socially, or with simply nothing better to do.

Georgina and Dominic are guzzling down their fix of caffeine as we join them at the start of the play. Georgina seems to be out of work, Dom has just got his divorce and Harry is already in a narcoleptic coma on the sofa. Dom is not coping well with his divorce and seems to be following his ex-wife around. Harry was only married for 6 weeks before he got divorced from his wife Hanny who we are later told is a cannibal! Oh dear! You can see where this is heading.

Much of the conversation is about, well ... sex. We're treated to some not very novel ideas about all men listening with their penises, and being obsessed with 'castration anxiety'. Though there was laughter from the audience, I found the humour mostly tired, mostly stale and mostly humorless. Indeed, there were times when I wondered if the audience were laughing in embarassment rather than at some authentically comedic line or situation. I certainly noted none at all.

When zany, off-beat comedy actor Helen Lederer appeared just before the interval, I had hopes for redemption. But when she started talking about the time she'd eaten (part of) a Sharma, I knew it was a lost cause. She confirmed my state of mind perfectly when she said to Dom "I sense you're very confused". Too true! And when Harry said to Hanny "I feel like I'm in an 80s nightmare" I could only nod in bored concurrence.

If 'Wake Up and Smell The Coffee' is some kind of parody of the hit TV series 'Friends', or having a dig at the inhabitants of modern-day coffee houses, it simply lacks the essential forceful bite, subtle wit and a believable plot to make it even vaguely palatable. Moreover, it meanders at times and then gets bogged down in moribund conversation which none of the audience found remotely amusing. In fact, much of the conversation seems forced and contrived, bordering at times on the distinctly feeble. I also couldn't accept for a moment that Helen Lederer's Hanny was stalking ex-husband Harry in order to take over his company, and the way in which Georgina suddenly starts a shouting match with Hanny for 'possession' of Harry was abruptly far-fetched and the kind of odd twist of events one finds in ill-conceived juvenile writing - it just didn't convince. As the whole thing tumbles (or struggles) it's way to a naively farcical conclusion - with the bemused Dom being sexually abused behind the wheely bins by Hanny - it began to feel almost desperately pathetic, but certainly very sad.

Interestingly, the title of the play seems to have originated from American newspaper columnist Ann Landers (real name Esther "Eppie" Pauline Friedman Lederer!). Well, landers wrote a book with the same title and she seems to have popularised the phrase even if she didn't invent it. Landers seems to have used it to mean 'Face The Facts'. Apt I would suggest for all concerned here, because though this play is mercifully short, it hasn't understood the fact that mentioning sex in almost every sentence is not a recipe for successful humour, unless there's much more to it. Give me a real cup of coffee any day!

(Peter Brown)

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