Review: LUTG Presents Callback

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Photo Courtesy of LUTG

Miles Caldwell: “Opinions are like arseholes, everyone’s got one”

Charlie Hammond: “You could say the same about critics, the arsehole part at least”

It’s often remarked that student theatre is a tricky business. It’s marked by an endless series of pitfalls in which the play can come to be regarded as unforgivably pretentious and that no matter how good the piece is there is a pervading sense that it’ll always be undermined by the very fact that it is written and performed by students. In spite of this, in Week 6 LUTG put on an original piece written by Jack Maidment, entitled Callback.  Despite the restrictions imposed by what is a particularly limiting performance space, The Playroom, the team behind Callback managed to put on a fantastic performance.  Callback is a heartfelt drama which effortlessly brings out both tears and laughter in the audience, and survives effortlessly in the memory.

Callback tells the story of Charlie Hammond, an aging stand-up comedian struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife, and the stagnation of his own career. It’s a tale of two halves, as the bitter mourning Charlie is contrasted in flashbacks with the buoyant, jovial Charlie before the death of his wife. It’s a story of redemption and recovery, which undoubtedly can strike a chord with even the most stone-hearted of audience members. It places it’s firmly in reality, with a running joke throughout the play being Charlie’s constantly changing film project with Jonah Hill, which transitions from buddy cop to “funny AID’s drama” over the course of the narrative. At heart it’s a story which deals with loss in its many forms, most pivotally in the death of Charlie’s wife to pancreatic cancer. To the plays credit, it handles these challenging themes sensitively and appropriately, never once straying into exploitative territory.

Jack Maidment makes his debut both as a writer and director in Callback, having previously performed with LUTG, and written sketches for the Lancaster University Comedy Institute; experience he undoubtedly drew upon in the writing of Callback. Maidment’s transition into these new roles is seamless, and there are virtually no signs to indicate this is his first time in either role, although this may be in part to the support offered to him by LUTG veteran Abbie Jones. The direction overall is solid, and the engaging character driven narrative is supported by sharp and incisive dialogue underscored by occasional moments of genius. In particular the opening scene of the 2nd act in which the guilt-ridden Charlie is stabbed to death by his friends and loved ones on the stage in which he has spent his career, is undoubtedly a highlight of the show. There were inevitably a few moments that felt unpolished, and at times the pacing felt a bit off but overall Callback is a very well written piece.

Greg Walker, in his first serious role for LUTG, gives a strong performance in a challenging role as the play’s protagonist Charlie Hammond. Hammond is the fulcrum to much of the play’s impact, providing a straight man to the eccentricities of the characters around him, but also serving as the main instigator for all of the play’s emotional notes. Walker’s performance is ultimately a balancing act; the wit and empathetic nature of the comedian, with the anger and grief of a widow, all while simultaneously providing a contrast to the pre and post tragedy Charlie. By all accounts, it’s a difficult act, but an act he performs remarkably well, although he is undeniably stronger as the endearing, and empathetic incarnation of Charlie.

Performing opposite Walker is Sophie Goodman as Charlie’s terminally ill wife in the flashback sequences. Goodman brings an effortless charm and warmth to the character, and the natural chemistry between Walker and herself serves to further emphasise the playfulness and intimacy in the scenes shared by Charlie and Susan Hammond. These scenes are genuinely heart-warming; which makes Susan’s death all the more tortuous, as we witness the separation of two people so devotedly in love. The only fault with this on-stage portrayal is that there isn’t enough of it. The scenes between the husband and wife are undoubtedly some of the most engaging and poignant of the show, and the story could only have benefited from more interaction between the two.

Meanwhile, Peter Collins-Hunt and Imogen Grey deliver terrific performances as Charlie’s money-obsessed and somewhat superficial agent Peter Fawkes, and his devoted life-long fan Pepper Smith respectively. These two characters could have very easily become two-dimensional; parodies of the over-eager groupie, or the sleazy agent we’ve seen so often in modern film and television. However, due in part to Maidment’s development of these characters through the narrative, and also due to the performances of Grey and Collins-Hunt who bring depth and sincerity to the characters, they avoid falling into this trope. The changing relationship between Hammond and his former groupie is exceptionally interesting, as we witness Pepper transition into Hammond’s respected equal.

Jeni Meadows, as the cynical and abrasive Fox UK Executive Jennifer Beckett, and Josh Utting as the snobbish and resentful critic Miles Caldwell, bring to life the two characters that supply the play with its most satirical and hilariously funny moments. One scene in particular, in which Caldwell interviews Beckett for his show Culture Corner is particularly demonstrative of the wit the two bring to the play. These two characters, played wonderfully and dynamically by Utting and Meadows, provide the perfect eccentric counterbalance to the grounded and realistic Hammond. Further, the expansion of the relationships between these two and Hammond once again serves to prevent them from becoming caricatures – in particular for Caldwell who is given believable motivation aside from his own personal snobbery.

The character of the Dark Thoughts is an interesting one, whose potential is reflected in a few incredibly powerful moments dotted throughout the play. The part is played masterfully by Rob Dalton, who brings a sense of fragile malevolence to the character. In its more successful moments, the device provides a wonderfully dynamic portrayal of the inner turmoil of Charlie – it’s finest utilisation coming in one of the play’s finest moments. During the conclusion of the first act as Charlie, tortured by the death of his wife and the irony of his own career, echoes the voice of his inner demons and screams into the audience “Are you not entertained?” At other times however, The Dark Thoughts character feel like an unnecessary sideshow, undermining the poignancy and emotion of scenes in which it is designed to underscore.

It’s a device indicative of a story which at times is unwilling to place its faith in the subtlety of its own elegant dialogue. This nuanced dialogue, alongside such suggestive performances are in nearly all instances enough to express the characters own thoughts and desires, but these points are sometimes laboured with overt dialogue, and in the case of Charlie Hammond, manifested in the words of The Dark Thoughts. Saying this, some of the best moments of the play, come in the form of the rambling monologues delivered by each character which explore each of their past, and their relationship with Charlie. These monologues held the most potential to fall into the classic pretentious student drama trope, but they were handled expertly by both writer and cast.

The ending of the play is the only part which fails to live up to high standards set by the rest of the story, not because it lacks the wit or emotional impact of the other scenes, but because Charlie’s redemption feels ultimately somewhat undeserved. His transformation from loveable hero, to spiteful villain in need of redemption feels, in spite of several scenes in which Charlie turns on his supporting characters, incomplete. Even in these flashes of anger he remains our relatable, likeable hero, still on the right side of the conflict. Perhaps it’s because Walker’s portrayal of Hammond is so likeable, but when he condemns the vile critic Miles or his crass and sleazy agent Peter, his condemnation feels legitimate, negating any need for him to win back the hearts of the audience. As such, the scenes in which he attempts to make amends for his past mistakes ring slightly hollow, because the audience can’t forgive his entirely justifiable actions.

While the staging is minimal, throughout Callback it’s often the more minute details that contribute to the overall effect of the play. The posters advertising Charlie Hammond’s latest stand up tour, which are then covered over by posters advertising Pepper’s tour, reflecting the protégées meteoric rise above her mentor. Further, the selection of songs to link the scenes during the transition were intelligently chosen, and again contribute to feeling of the performance. As mentioned earlier, the production did suffer somewhat from the performance space. It meant that occasionally the more visually dependant scenes were lost on the members of the audience who were not fortune enough to either sit on the front row, or posses the height of an ancient oak tree.

These concerns however, are ultimately minimal. Callback is a wonderful piece of theatre. Congratulations to everyone involved in the show. Firstly, for putting a wonderful and hugely enjoyable show. Secondly, and for raising over £1000 for the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund.