“A superbly well-acted, intelligently measured two-hander.”
This new play from Danielle Ward is a bleak yet richly rewarding hour; it picks many scabs and asks many fascinating questions of audiences — not only audiences of this show in particular, but audiences of comedy acts in general. Anna Crilly and Margaret Cabourn-Smith make up the onstage presence, as former members of a popular comedy double act, Anderson and West, a duo that achieved some success until their goals became too distanced from each others’. Over the course of this frequently hilarious hour, Ward explores how such formerly good friends and fruitful collaborators could fall so far out of amicability, and has some damning implications for the demands of show business itself.
West (Crilly) opens the show as she prepares for a live charity event in which is she is to be forcibly reunited with her former comedy partner Anderson (Cabourn-Smith). The two have not spoken in ten years, for specific, shocking reasons that Ward wisely conceals until the play’s remarkable concluding moments. Crilly is grounded and sympathetic as the ostensibly weaker, more shameful West, opposite Cabourn-Smith’s dissimilar Anderson, whose comedy career has been skyrocketing for years. As they meet again, pleasantries are quickly swiped aside in favor of vicious indictments of each other’s characters — made all the more incisive by their cool, collected deliveries and artfully verbose wordings. Anderson in particular is given some excellent lines and jabs that she capably stabs in West’s direction, from mocking her brief career as a vacuum-cleaner spokeswoman to bemusedly grimacing past the failed comedian’s explanation of her lamentable new interest in podcasting.
Beyond the lines, The Half features some laudable aesthetic and technical choices, such as frequent flashbacks that prove affecting both in form and content. These flashbacks, which ultimately retell the story of how the two comedians met, are carefully crafted, so that both actresses effectively sound and appear younger and conspicuously less world-weary, which is achieved with great success. Cabourn-Smith in particular changes her characterisation with commendable grace; to be fair, for reasons that might spoil the show’s excellent ending, it is understandable why Crilly leaves more of West’s characteristics constant through the time-jumping progression. Formally, there is a similarly intelligent choice made in how the flashbacks occur: the ‘modern day’ story, of the two women awaiting this reunion show in a dressing room, is intermittently frozen by a recollection of an old memory, and each time, Anderson moves downstage right and waits for West to dutifully fetch the costumes and props necessary to perform the recollection in question. Crilly’s expressions are excellently measured for these moments, as she imbues West with both a morbid interest in reliving what happened all those years ago, and a marked agony in having to accept that she was destined to be the underachiever between them.
Yet, to its credit, The Half makes the viewer question whether terms like ‘underachiever’ or ‘success’ in show business ought to mean at all. There are excellent ruminations on resistance, resilience, dignity, and concession in the arts, particularly for female artists, which build with growing intensity for a conclusion that is on par with the most dramatic offerings this Fringe has to offer. Accompanied by a haunting repeated musical cue, the ultimate climax and denouement of The Half are horrifyingly effective, almost to a fault, for the downward spiral is so all-encompassing that all the admittedly razor-sharp comedy of the previous minutes feels unwelcome in one’s memory — such is the effect of the chosen ending for Ward’s narrative.
Overall, however, though the tone leaves the viewer on some possibly too-sudden misery, the ride as a whole is well worth the high drama; this is a superbly well-acted, intelligently measured two-hander that deserves a wide audience.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller