Published in Northings
JOHNNY McKnight is a fly one. As a playwright, he makes like everything is a big laugh. The two one-hour plays brought together here by Random Accomplice are all gossipy and effervescent, quick-witted jokes and gallus patter with an air of camp. Like the candyfloss shared by Jenny and Leyla at the close of the first play, Mary Massacre, they appear bright, sugary and insubstantial.
It's a big ruse. McKnight knows the breezy comedy is what will draw us in, but he also knows it'll take something more weighty to send us away satisfied. The plays fizz and crackle so much we're powerless to resist when they turn dark. In the second one, Seven Year Itch, he literally sticks the knife in, writing perhaps the world's only postmodern homicide comedy.
The first one has a similarly dark edge. Delightfully acted by Julie Wilson-Nimmo and Mary Gapinski in Julie Brown's production, Mary Massacre shows us two corners of a love triangle involving an Ayrshire woman who cracks her husband's computer password and discovers the adulterous plans he's been hatching on www.toomanyfish.com.
For the most part, it's a brash and brassy sequence of alternating monologues as the two women are drawn unknowingly into each other's orbit. The tone is hard-drinking, man-bashing and irreverent; Jenny is not the sort to be walked over by her unseen husband and, even if love rival Leyla is more romantic, she is nobody's fool either.
What the characters say and what they feel, however, is not the same thing, and the closer McKnight gets to a revenger's comedy, the more the underlying tragedy pushes through. Jenny's sharp talk and waspish humour are a shield to protect her from devastating grief.
As if to demonstrate his own technique, McKnight gets all meta-theatrical in Seven Year Itch, in which Julie Brown and Martin McCormick play themselves playing actors playing characters who may or may not have existed in a real Chicago office. Stepping in and out of their various personas, the actors repeatedly interrupt the humdrum business of nine-to-five life with subtextual interpretations of what's really going on and suggestions of how they could have performed each interaction.
This kind of self-referential stuff could easily come across as indulgent, but it is written with enough wit and performed with enough spark to be both funny and head-spinning. And, as with the first play, McKnight's technique turns out to be a smoke screen for a more troubling story; in this case, a murder provoked by homophobia and religious intolerance. If that sounds like an unlikely subject for a knockabout comedy with extra helpings of Dolly Parton jokes, it's a testament to McKnight's powers of deception.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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