Fourth Wall

26 Aug 2008

I'm hanging on her every word.

Then she steps off the stage. And, oh god, she's explaining to the other actor that they're in a play.

My face falls. Burned before, I'd been worried when I entered a theatre with seating for only thirty, but from their first words, the two actors made it clear that this is a truly professional production.

Now they've broken the fourth wall, a cheap laugh that comes at the cost of the rest of the show. I'm genuinely baffled. This isn't even a comedy.

Nothing destroys the illusion faster or more completely. Nothing is more hackneyed, overused, devoid of any value whatsoever. Breaching the fourth wall is the last refuge of a writer who is out of ideas.

And yet the writers are not out of ideas. The other 58 minutes of The Open Couple are tight, non-stop bitter reality with not a word wasted. It's against an otherwise flawless production that this failure stands out so badly.


I have a recurring nightmare where I'm due to go on, but don't remember my lines, or even the name of the play. It's the theatrical version of the old "naked in maths class"

So it's odd that the highlights of the last year have been shows that put me in exactly that position.

They breach the fourth wall. But they do it in the other direction. Rather than deserting to the audience and leaving the stage empty, the actors bring the crowd onto the set.

In Faust, I learnt the rules quickly: I did not exist. Masked and always alert to the movement of actors, I was freed from my seat but remained a ghost.

In Office Party I was free to interact, but nothing I did mattered.

In Death By Chocolate I took center stage. And I was being assessed. The rationalisation - trainee detectives interviewing real suspects - didn't feel forced at all. In a way, that made it rather frightening.

As the show started, the suspects were sitting quietly. Detectives - the "audience" - were fidgeting with the evidence trays, looking at each other. Nothing was going to happen unless I made it happen.

A few set-pieces moved us along but they weren't even really needed; there were many, many avenues of inquiry. It was overwhelming and a little contrived - like the How To Host A Murder scenarios where anyone could have done it - but with fifty people to keep entertained, perhaps there was no other way.

It worked amazingly well. Going to Death By Chocolate was like taking the stage for opening night, without having to go to the rehearsals.

It's some of the buzz with none of the heavy lifting.

It's genius.

Even if I can't remember my lines.