Dumb Show

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

30/06/2007 - 28/07/2007

Production Details

By Joe Penhall
Directed by Susan Wilson

A sensational new comedy from the multi-award winning British playwright, Joe Penhall (Blue/Orange) DUMB SHOW has its New Zealand premiere at CIRCA TWO opening on Saturday 30th June at 7.30pm and running until 28th July. 

DUMB SHOW continues Circa’s emphasis on presenting some of the best new writing in the intimate space of CIRCA TWO with this sharp, funny, fast-paced satire that targets the modern tension between freedom of expression and the right to privacy, and also looks at society’s obsession with fame and celebrity. It is a subject that resonates far beyond the tabloid sting to issues of media manipulation and government spin.

Barry’s fifteen minutes of infamy are overdue, and when laughter’s your living … that’s no joke. Courted at the end of his show by bankers John and Jane, TV star Barry believes he is to get the 5-star treatment that he deserves. However urged to provide a candid account of his off-stage life and views, the Barry that emerges is the least of the surprises in the tense game of power and manipulation that ensues.

About DUMB SHOW, Joe Penhall a former newspaper reporter subsequently turned award-winning playwright, says, “The main theme is the exploitation of people’s misery for entertainment, which is what we see everywhere in the tabloids, on reality TV shows, and on pretty much most popular TV. It’s about the ‘tabloidification’ of popular culture and the media. It fascinates me that it’s so enduringly popular. The fact that we’ve got that kind of media must say something about the kind of society we live in. We’ve also incidentally got that kind of government as well; we’ve got a government that prides itself on spin and manipulation. It’s axiomatic that if you’ve got a government and a popular press that are willfully manipulative you’re going to wind up with a society that’s increasingly manipulative. That’s the central assertion of the play.” 

DUMB SHOW premiered at the Royal Court in September 2004. 

Liz . . . . . . JESSICA ROBINSON

Lighting by MARCUS McSHANE

Stage Manager . . . . Corinne Simpson
Operator . . . . . . . . . Rosie Olsen
Sound . . . . . . . . . . . .Ben Sinclair, Susan Wilson
Set Construction . . .John Hodgkins
Publicity . . . . . . . . . .Claire Treloar

Graphic Design . . . . Rose Miller, Parlour
Photography . . . . . . Stephen A'Court
House Manager . . . .Suzanne Blackburn
Front of House . . . . Linda Wilson 


Theatre ,

Valuable questions amid black humour

Review by Melody Nixon 27th Jul 2007

Dumb Show, now in its final Circa Two week, has moments of hearty black humour – if such humour can be hearty – and witty, shrewd observation. Its representations of wry and hopelessly selfish modern ‘man’ encourage us to readily self-identify. And its portrayal of today’s media – albeit somewhat distant from the shores of tabloid free Aotearoa – is relevant and searching. But at times Circa’s Dumb Show seems to slip past the tug and weight of Joe Penhall’s script and fall into unlikely interpretation, relying too heavily on overstatement.

The trio of talented and well-cast actors succeed at times in teasing out greater subtlety from their interactions, but ultimately struggle to engage the audience on a more than superficial level. When drunken Barry (Stephan Gledhill) leers to highly sexualised Liz (Jessica Robinson) that “sex is God’s way of saying sorry… it’s compensation for growing up,” we laugh gladly at the strength of this phrase; yet fail to sense a dynamic between the two characters that would imbue the phrase with a deeper, fulfilling subtext.

The themes of the unethical and corruptive effects of fame and notoriety – as witnessed both in money-hungry TV star Barry, and the smooze duo Liz and Greg (Gavin Rutherford) – echo the themes of LaBute’s Fat Pig, recently concluded across the foyer in Circa One. As personal gain becomes the driving force in each character’s relations with the others, it becomes increasingly unclear who is manipulating who. Roles of victim and tormentor are reversed over and over, ala Blackbird, also recently concluded at Circa.

However, apart from the initial scene of Barry with Liz and Greg as ‘bankers’, these roles are not clearly defined enough to allow for steady, confident reversal. Unlike Blackbird, Barry, Liz and Greg all play ‘dumb’ as to the awareness of their own situation; the internal workings or emotions which would allow us to access the truth of their various positions, are kept hidden. While this allows for the many layers of intricacy in the plot, it also, in my opinion, prevents us from believing in the characters as they are portrayed here.

Furthermore when, as in the case of the bankers, the premise for the scene is laid out plainly, it tends to ring hollow. Rather than be caught up in the unfolding of action we tend to anticipate it. We are unconvinced the ‘bankers’ would so generously try to help Barry to restart his career and we wait expectantly for the uncoiling which, although exciting in parts, does not come as a complete and satisfying surprise.

The change in power dynamic between Greg and Liz, though made spectacular through Liz’s physical metamorphosis, is also a little unconvincing. The role Liz has been playing until that point seems too weak to have been hiding such a viper; Greg’s consequent crumbling is also incongruous with the heartless domination he previously showed. The beauty of these hidden personas – hinting at the way the layers of self we construct in the quest for personal success can fool also ourselves – does shine through, but again because the characters themselves seem unsure of their own reactions, or do not display their emotions as the drama unfolds, we are never allowed to completely believe in them.

Nonetheless, there are many moments of hilarity and fun in Dumb Show, and is perhaps a worthwhile experience for devotees of straight up black comedy. Gavin Rutherford is a wonderfully comic actor, and he sparkles in the dry wit, arrogance and falsity of Greg. He manages to relay much of the script’s humour with finesse, despite the lack of emotional variation, which Susan Wilson’s directing has perhaps required. Similarly, Stephen Gledhill has some gleaming one-liners, and he suitably captures the vulnerability and neediness of Barry.

The play’s final point shows the submitting of the subject to that “exploitation of misery” Penhall sees as ubiquitous in today’s entertainment media. Whether the rewards for this voluntary subjection – money, fame, momentary self-importance – outweigh the embarrassment or sense of deception they accompany, is not explored. Rather, it is left to our discretion to decide the rights and wrongs of starring in a reality TV show, or having one’s personal life exposed in some tabloid. How far is too far? How much should people reveal about themselves, and when are they ever doing it out of their own free will? These are valuable questions to be left with from a humorous, if not too enthralling, production.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Needs more subtlety

Review by Lynn Freeman 11th Jul 2007

The media – vicious, voracious vultures who feed off other peoples’ misery and serve it up to an audience hungry for celebrity scandals and tittle tattle.  

We journalists are always found at the bottom of the "most trusted professions" pile along with used car salespeople and politicians. Dumb Show points the finger back at the media, and at the celebrities who need, love and hate the paparazzi.

Barry, pick any aging British stand up comedian past their best by date, is finding his funny laugh and old school jokes are wearing thin, and his TV series is on the rocks.

Two private bankers court and flatter him, appealing to his ego and his greed. It’s a trap of course, especially the young woman (Liz) who blatantly comes onto him, but, Barry gets sucked in. The bankers are in fact journalists out for a juicy scoop of another celebrity downfall. The play was written in 2004 but you can’t help thinking Paris Hilton.

Of the flaws in the script the biggest is the role of Liz. Penhall has no ideas who she is – one minute she’s the "come-on" queen, the next a vulnerable young woman, then she’s a rabid screeching reporter.

Liz, despite Jessica Robinson’s best efforts, is a disaster of a character. Gavin Rutherford has a much easier time of one-dimensional Greg, he’s a sleazy, ambitious but ultimately gutless journalist. Barry is the only character with any depth and once Stephen Gledhill got a grip on the lines on opening night, he made us care for the guy. "We’re living in a world of hollow laughter," he says, where reality and banality go hand in hand.

Joe Penhall’s script is wielded as a blunt instrument rather than a scalpel. He talks about the conflict of public interest and the right to privacy, but could have explored more the cult of celebrity, where stars sell their stories and photographs but bleat about being hounded by the media when unpleasant truths come to the surface.

Can they really have it both ways? The three characters, too, are broad stereotypes, as well as being all thoroughly venal and selfish. More subtlety would make for a much more satisfying work.


jessica zanetti July 16th, 2007

I thought it was a brilliant satire of what really happens with the media and celebrity culture today...just look at all the hype around people like Paris Hilton...we al loved that she went to prison! I found the play funny and well crafted, and while I agree that the character of Liz was the weakest, I thought the play captured the co-dependance between the media and clebrities and was quite thought provoking!

Moya Bannerman July 12th, 2007

Is Jane/Liz really “real” Polly? I agree that Jessica Robinson is very convincing in every permutation – it is a riveting portrayal of a sociopath, so focused on the goal she has lost any capacity for empathy and yet she plays out the behaviours of concern, attraction, lasciviousness, etc., in order to manipulate poor old Barry. But is Penhall depicting media vulture behaviour he has observed first-hand in an individual, has he conflated aspects of different devious personalities into one, and/or is he issuing a heightened reality warning that this is where the 4th Estate is heading? We are all very aware of how ruthless the paparazzi can be. Is the same true of those who hunt out / make up and write the stories? Does anyone have any anecdotal observations to offer?

Polly A July 11th, 2007

Oh how profoundly I disagree with you, Lyn, about the Liz character in Dumb Show. I read your review in the Capital Times today and have been waiting for it to turn up here so I can comment. You have completely missed the point. Liz is a chameleon: anything to score the scoop even if they do have to (as JS puts it in his review) manufacture it themselves. And Jessica Robinson does a marvellous job with her, totally convincing in each incarnation – especially at the end when we desperately want to believe that she actually does have a heart. She is real, this person, and she’s out there. Believe it.

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Too “wilfully manipulative” and artificial to truly expose human behaviour

Review by Helen Sims 10th Jul 2007

In English theatre tradition, a dumb show is a masque-like interlude of silent pantomime usually with allegorical content that refers to the occasion of a play or its theme, the most famous being the pantomime played out in Hamlet. Although Penhall’s script is far from silent, I suppose that it is what is not being said; the reading between the lines, that is most important in this play. The Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Dumb Show was described in The Age as a “tabloid immorality play”, tackling the themes of media corruption and emptiness. In the playwright’s own words, Dumb Show is “about what happens in the absolute absence of compassion, where society is becoming a vacuum devoid of any real empathy and sympathy, where the only thing that’s left is an utterly plasticized, platitudinous and prurient tabloid sentimentality.”

The play is tightly structured and revolves around the fast paced exchanges between ‘John’ and ‘Jane’, swanky private bankers, and Barry, a television entertainer whose star is fading. Their power dressing with accents of fiery red (for her lips and talons; for him tie and pocket square) contrasts nicely with Barry’s muted and dated attire. Barry also looks slightly out of place in the posh hotel room the ‘bankers’ have arranged to meet him in – this is more their arena than his, and his discomfort shows. In the first 20 minutes of the play one wonders what the point of this play is, as the characters fix a deal that will secure to Barry the baubles of fame he feels he deserves. The message seems to be revealed several times – we are living in a “world of hollow laughter”, in which that which we find funny or entertaining seems to be increasingly bizarre. Entertainment, especially television, presents human beings with an alternate reality which we have embraced to the point where as a media saturated race we are no longer interested in reality, only with distorting it. These points are emphasized in the twist 35 minutes in (I won’t spoil it, but it’s safe to say you’ll see it or something like it coming) and then rammed home by the last 40 minutes.

The motivations of each character become increasingly complex, yet I felt very little connection or empathy with any of the characters. Perhaps this is part of Penhall’s point, but by failing to make us really care about any of the characters it is easy to loose interest. This becomes most obvious in the final scene of the play, in which an attempt is made at atonement and capturing an emotional heart to the story, but to be honest the previous 90 minutes doesn’t really allow for this to ring true, focusing instead on the power shifts between the three characters as “true” identities are revealed.. I wouldn’t lay the blame for this at the feet of the actors, (Stephen Gledhill, Jessica Robinson and Gavin Rutherford) all three of whom turn in excellent performances, even if the rhythms felt slightly off on opening night. This may get better as the season progresses, as this is a script that demands perfect timing. Instead it is the fault of a script that largely sacrifices character development in favour of theme and some rather static direction.

Overall, this is a solid, if uninspiring production, which is a shame given the subject matter Penhall is interrogating. It is well served by its actors and technical design team, but in the end the play feels too “willfully manipulative” and artificial for a play that has the exposition of human behaviour at its heart.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Right to privacy v. freedom of expression

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 03rd Jul 2007

When asked how he hoped New Zealand audiences would react to his new play Dumb Show, playwright Joe Penhall simply remarked "To just make them laugh". And while Circa Theatre’s production does just that it also has amazing moments of stillness as the pain and emotional trauma experienced by the central character is exposed through the laughter. 

Fortunately here in New Zealand local celebrities are rarely duped by undercover investigative journalists posing as someone they are not, in order to get a story, but it would appear it has and does happen overseas.  And this, coupled with the abhorrence at the way journalists play on people’s misery for a story, is what motivated Penhall to write Dumb Show, a satirical and biting commentary on tabloid journalism. 

Barry (Stephen Gledhill) is a well known comedian who spends most of his time making people laugh.  Yet like many in his position, life is not so funny behind the scenes.  Two journalists Greg (Gavin Rutherford) and Liz (Jessica Robinson) decide to do a story on Barry and expose him, posing as bankers to do so.  And so in a hotel room, excellently appointed in this production, the dumb show begins and Barry’s life is slowly pulled apart by Greg and Liz. 

After a slow start, as much to do with the writing as with the production, the actors get into their stride to give stellar performances all round. Susan Wilson’s expert direction gives the play depth and credibility by going as much for the agony and heartbreak of Barry’s situation as for the comedy. 

Gledhill is a natural for the part of Barry, his comedic ability to the fore as he jokes and clowns about with Greg and Liz before they confront him with the fact that it’s not his investments they have come to discuss. They purport to want to show the dark side and the demons behind Barry’s clowning, the reality and banality of life off camera, which is where Gledhill excels ever further in showing the real Barry – a weak and confused character needing to continually be the centre of attention. 

Although rather transparent and two-dimensional, the character of Greg is expertly fleshed out by Rutherford. His persistent whining and patronizing attitude as he probes and pushes Barry is effectively irritating.

Liz is more complex as she never completely shows her hand and it’s never clear just what game she’s playing until the end. Robinson’s sultry looks and demeanor add much to the intrigue of what her motives are even though she says she is simply providing a service to the public with her stories. 

To respect one’s private and family life while still having the right to freedom of expression is at the heart of this play and, although left with no right or wrong answers, the way the pendulum swings between these two arguments makes for an engaging and absorbing piece of theatre.
For more production details, click on the title at the top of this review. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


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Theme de-jour

Review by John Smythe 01st Jul 2007

The title is tempting for a critic: "Dumb Show speaks for itself." And about 20 minutes in, during the second of its six scenes, I’m beginning to think that might be apt; it seems far from witty or insightful. But such judgement turns out to be premature. This is a play that asks us to trust it and when we do, it delivers.

Private bank wanks ‘John’ (Gavin Rutherford) and ‘Jane’ (Jessica Robinson), whisk middle-aged celebrity comedian Barry into a hotel suite after his gig downstairs. Their goal, it seems, is to flatter him into bringing his wealth and prestige to their business, and delight their clients as an after-dinner guest speaker for a handsome fee. Everything about them screams ‘phoney’. Yet it is credible that Barry, bemused by this new world of commerce, finally buys their bullshit

But when the jokes being regurgitated for more guffaws are creaking with age, then ‘Jane’ waggles her bottom in Barry’s face while trying to uncork a bottle of bubbly, it’s tempting to think we have all become trapped in a Benny Hill nightmare-cum-fantasy. One twist that elevates it, though, is Barry’s PC put-down comeback – "What’s funny about that?" – when ‘John’ tries to score with a gag. Comedians hate others taking the limelight. And there is also an echo, in that moment, of Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians (1975), which explores the whole question of jokes that hate various minority groups.

Scene two is even more unprepossessing as we, and Jane, witness Barry’s alcohol fuelled slide into very ordinary human behaviour, albeit warped by the less than ‘normal’ nature of his lifestyle. Which of course is the point. That said, I do think the scene would be better served with more sexual tension, arising from the fear, excitement and moral qualms that Barry – married with children – must surely feel in the face (etc) of seductive ‘Jane’ and the opportunity that seems to be presenting itself.

It is the return of ‘John’ as a righteous interrogator that turns the plot in a whole new direction and addresses the doubts and questions that have arisen. They are not ‘John’ and ‘Jane’ but – as credited in the programme – Greg and Liz, and their motives are very ulterior. To give no more away than publicity and programme notes already reveal, what follows is an exposé of the ruthlessness of the populist tabloid media, not only hungry for scandal but actively manufacturing it to feed the hordes who daily bay for more.

It’s the theme-de-jour in Wellington, with Joe Penhall’s Dumb Show sitting somewhere between Margot McRae’s Finding Murdoch at Downstage, which focuses on the time when NZ TV journalism lost its innocence, and Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer Vacation, recently staged at Toi Whakaari, which grotesquely eviscerates the insatiable blood-lust of popular media audiences.

Barry’s vulnerability is well explored with regard to his quarter horse-breeding wife, Valerie, but any concern he might have for his children is oddly ignored by playwright Penhall. Stephen Gledhill brings conviction to the nervous, uncertain dimensions of Barry and ensures we care about his exploitation, despite – or possibly even more so because of – his ordinary human failings. But I have a sense that if he had started with greater confidence – that of a performer who feels at the top of his game, not least because of the attention and ‘respect’ he thinks he is getting from the two Js – his story would be more dramatically shaped.  

In what has become his trademark style, Gavin Rutherford mines the ‘John’/Greg role for comic opportunities, once or twice at the expense of character authenticity. But his oscillations from wit to pillock to seriously dangerous manipulator are dramatically effective.

Utterly engaging, because every moment is rooted in authenticity even when she is faking it as ‘Jane’, is Jessica Robinson’s Liz. While it’s easy to write Greg off as the bastard who’s doing it to us without a glimmer of conscience, Robinson lets us in at a level that makes us wonder, at times, if Liz may not be something of a victim of the system too. "Who are you?" Barry asks her, early on. Our interest in finding an answer to that goes a long way towards ensuring the 100 minutes without an interval continue to grip and provoke us.

Director Susan Wilson and her design team – John Hodgkins (set), Marcus McShane (lighting) and Gillie Coxill (costume) – facilitate the telling of a tale we need to hear as our own populist media organs slide inexorably towards a value (if that’s the word) system that degrades us all.


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