Guest Blog: The Joke tour week 3

The Joke opens at CPT next Tue 17 May and runs until Sat 4 June. FIND OUT MORE.

Saturday lunchtime in the third week of The Joke’s tour, and we arrive at the White Hart inn in Holsworthy, Devon – the off-piste venue for our final show of a busy week. A-flutter outside the pub, not one but five prominent England flags. The Labour MP Emily Thornberry might advise me not to draw attention to this, but – given the content of our show – I can’t resist pointing it out to Will: “the Englishman will be very much on home turf tonight.”

R0125724Holsworthy and Chulmleigh are the two towns on the rural touring leg of our tour, when we forsake theatres and arts centres in favour of improvised spaces in further-flung corners of the UK. Performing a show about an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman in this part of the country threatens to bypass entirely how people feel about themselves: the Devonian identity is a thing apart. Our taxi driver tells us about local clan rivalries that played out medievally until at least the 1950s, and indeed how people of the county still smart over Dr Beeching’s closure of the local railways, sixty years ago.

The two gigs are great fun, though – the first because we have to scale up to fit a cavernous school assembly hall; the second because we’re squeezed into the tiny function room of a boozer, whose claustrophobic dimensions suit well our tale of three men trapped in a joke. One punter we chat with after is excited about the show’s central section, when our characters each vent steam about their national identity. Will’s rant in particular, which spirals off into a surreal disquisition on the English sense of self, pushes the audience into discomfort and beyond (we’re told) like a Stewart Lee routine. In the pub with the St George’s Crosses billowing outside, the show’s pathetic/sympathetic take on English neurosis (“Everything’s bloody his fault even though he spent all night putting up the bloody bunting…!”) seems to have struck a chord.

Mind you, the Scottish and Irish shtick is near the knuckle too. The Joke declares open season on intra-UK abuse: the three of us hurl insults at one another of a type that may, in other contexts, be considered sensitive bordering on un-sayable. Which is funny for our audience (it seems), but also liberating to a sometimes awkward degree. At one point in the show, the Englishman and Scotsman are obliged to list things for which (Northern) Ireland is famous. Into the silence as they struggle to do so, one of this week’s audience pitched the following: “drunks!”; “potatoes!”. I guess when – as we do – you release the genie of repressed prejudice from its bottle, it’s not always easy to get it back in again.

All of this, of course, is happening against the backdrop of wider conversations about cultural identity – like the ones about race that accompanied last week’s mayoral election, or about British and European identity in the build-up to the EU vote. One reviewer of our show, after this week’s Liverpool performances, wrote that “in a very brief respite from this show’s humour, it crossed my mind that this sense of nationality and nationhood [as dramatised in The Joke] is so much in the past that it really is laughable, and it began to put the ‘seriousness’ of the forthcoming EU referendum into some real perspective.” A member of our Holsworthy audience announced to us in the bar afterwards, as if he expected it to start a fight, that he would vote ‘remain’ in the referendum. He misjudged us, of course: metropolitan arts professionals to a tee, we’re all solidly pro-EU.

But so too is Devon, if the quiz-loving Steve – who we met in Chulmleigh – is to be believed. Between inflicting on us gruelling Q&A’s about movies that begin with B, or countries that have won the European Championships, Steve disclosed the results of his private Euro referendum straw poll: 60/40 in favour, he reckons. It’s encouraging to know, even as we nightly holler at one another across a stage about our petty British differences, that in six weeks’ time we may yet vote to bury our supposed differences with those who live a little further afield.

The Joke opens at CPT next Tue 17 May and runs until Sat 4 June. FIND OUT MORE.