Nothing really matters
14 April 2017
Sad Little Man is made up of fragments, driven by exceptional performances, but the female voice is drowned out, says Florence Bell
Sad Little Man is scary and sad, but at the end of the day it’s just stand-up tragedy.
Stand-up tragedy: like stand-up comedy but sad. A two-hander with stories, anecdotes and one-liners. But sad. Pub Corner Poets have created something as sad as possible that isn’t really much else. The writing is lyrical and the use of video and lighting is powerful but it’s still nothing more than stand-up tragedy.
There are half-formed ideas and motifs that can get away with being half-formed because although there is a slight plot running through the piece, all Sad Little Man really wants to achieve is to be sad. There doesn’t have to be a linear story that makes sense because this isn’t the way this works. There are fragments of ideas that are never fully expressed (three and a half seconds, the rain) and are held back from the audience. They contribute to the overall sad aesthetic of the show but nothing is fully fleshed out. There’s not much concrete to feel sad about but Sad Little Man still achieves exactly what it sets out to do.
There are some funny and charming moments: the texting sequence. The use of handwriting to illustrate texts is touching and adds a hint of tragedy to the only comic sequence. The pithiest moment is when the male character, Lee, takes a dick pic that is revealed on the screen as a doodle of a dick.
There’s a sense that the stand-up parts of this, when Lee (Oliver Strong) speaks directly to the audience, are meant to feel improvised but this is transparent. Although it’s a nice idea, it’s clear that this is very rehearsed. Not a word of this is ad-libbed.
The acting from Strong and Danielle Harris as Emily is exceptionally strong. They give meaning to a story with not much plot. The moment when Lee pulls Emily’s body out of the bath is intensely powerful: there’s a hint of Lear carrying on the body of the dead Cordelia. But, unlike Shakespeare, this made me actually feel something.
There’s something about titles of plays that specifically reference gender that make me suspicious. Why do plays like Sad Little Man, Boy, Kings of War and Everyman have to be about men? Why can’t they be about women? It’s not that we can’t tell stories about men. But how much would this show have to be changed for it to be called Sad Little Woman? Would it be a remarkably different play?
Lee excludes Emily by stating that "we’re forced to see this through my eyes". I’m not sure that’s good enough. Emily creates an air of sadness through her movement, but she has very few words. When Emily speaks, she is always drowned out by the music, drowned out by Lee, or her words appear on screen. The only time she speaks into the mic, she repeats Lee’s words exactly. That’s as good as not having a voice at all. The only time when we hear her own voice clearly, she’s offstage and we listen to a recording.
Lee controls the stage and therefore almost everything Emily does. For one moment, if seems as if she’s going to take control (when she turns on the taps on the bath) but she is prevented by Lee.
What’s even worse is that Lee interprets some of the sad stories he tells as part of the concept of stand-up tragedy for us. The audience isn’t allowed to think for themselves. We have to listen to Lee’s readings of the stories he tells. Lee is the old man in this story. Emily is the old woman in this story. There isn’t much subtlety.
We see a gentle and docile side to Emily and Lee’s relationship but we also see "styles of violence". Lee might tell us that Emily is stubborn and we see both of them arguing (with Emily’s voice drowned out by helium and Lee’s shouting), but seeing him use her phone to voice her words is reminiscent of abusive relationships where men read women’s text messages in order to control every aspect of their lives.
It’s really difficult to tell whether this ruthless subjugation of Emily’s character is intentional or not. All stand-up tragedy has to do is to be sad. Is the detraction of Emily’s voice intended to be as tragic as Lee’s emotional turbulence. Is this a subversion of the genre? Or is it just careless story telling? The saddest moment for me was when she came forward to the mic at the very end: I thought I was going to finally hear her speak but she repeated Lee’s words from the openings.
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Photo credit: Aenne Pallasaca