Review: War by Michael Workman (Performance, 2014)

In which I am delighted by Sydney’s growing comedy culture, talk a bit about the delightful David O’Doherty, and am delighted to see comedian and storyteller Michael Workman again.

 

Michael Workman's Publicity Photo. Though, his hair is a new colour now.
Michael Workman’s Publicity Photo. Though, his hair is a new colour now.

 

Despite being the biggest city in Australia, Sydney is not known for its comedy scene — Melbourne well and truly wears the comedy crown here in Oz, and I dare say it always will. But over the past few years, there’s been a concerted effort on the part of promoters and comedy types to lift Sydney’s game. I’m glad for it. Sydney is not made for comedy festivals, and neither are its people, so it’s a tough slog. As one comedy promoter once explained to me, in Melbourne, it’s like the whole city is designed to see a show. Alleyways and squares and multiple venues are all easily accessible and close to one another. People can wander into town and then wander between venues that are all just a few metres apart and pick any show they like. Sydney just isn’t laid out that way. Seeing back-to-back shows in Sydney usually involves a lumbering trek from one venue to another and so most people don’t bother.

Also, Sydney has much better weather — and we’re very use to it, pampered brats that we are. If it’s not pleasant, we aren’t going out. Let’s just leave it for another night. Going out in this slight Sydney drizzle would require one to put on a cardigan and honestly, that would be a bit weird. Melbournites however are a hardier lot, use to less predictable, colder and less comforting conditions — if they refuse to go out in the driving Melbourne rain, they’ll never see anything.

Sydney’s Factory Theatre on the outskirts of Marrickville has tried to alleviate this tyranny of distance somewhat by offering multiple, smaller venues all in the one location, with a bar on site to help lubricate the process. The fact that the whole place is plonked in the middle of one of Sydney’s oldest suburban industrial areas hasn’t bothered it one bit. It draws a pretty good crowd as it’s on a bus route, local parking isn’t metered (yet) and it’s actually not too far a hike from buzzy Enmore Road if one deigns to use their legs.

Anyway…

Last week, I left the house to see the wonderful David O’Doherty, in his latest show Will Try To Fix Everything, at one of Sydney’s last remaining cavernous rock ’n roll pits, The Enmore Theatre. There isn’t fixed seating downstairs as that’s where they usually put the mosh pit. You notice it as the 1,500 plus temporary seats are clearly very temporary.

O’Doherty is admittedly a personal favourite. He’s geeky and awkward and lies down on the stage when he feels like it, wrapping himself in his microphone cord as he laments some small injustice of the first world. His shaggy-haired friendliness affectionately reminds me of a loveable distant cousin I don’t actually have but always look forward to seeing at Christmas. He wields a very small keyboard on which he plays terrible and terribly funny compositions that sound even more funny simply because he’s Irish. You just want to give him a big hug.

This particular show of his was one of the best live comedy shows I’ve ever seen. I laughed heartily throughout and so did the crowd. I would highly recommend seeing him live whenever possible.

A show by O’Doherty (small keyboard and lying down aside) is what I think most people imagine they’ll see when they go see live stand-up comedy. A guy or gal up on a stage with a microphone and a bottle of water, stringing together a series of very funny anecdotes and one-liners that may at the end add up to something unified theme, but really it doesn’t matter. You’re there to laugh, and as long as that happens more often than not, it’s been worth the effort.

Michael Workman does not do that kind of stand-up comedy. In fact, if he wasn’t playing as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival, I don’t know that I would jump to label him a stand-up comedian. Interestingly, I don’t know that he labels himself a stand-up comedian either. At this latest show, he referred to himself as an artist; he paints, he composes and he does his live shows as part of comedy festivals. He proves he’s an artist by asking us to imagine his props on stage, which he describes in detail, as he can’t actually afford to buy real ones.

I would call Workman a storyteller, first and foremost. A very funny storyteller, yes a comedian even, but where I waver at calling him a comedian, I do not waver at calling him a storyteller.

Michael Workman's War Tour Poster
Michael Workman’s War Tour Poster

 

This year’s show is the second time I’ve seen Michael Workman and the second time I’ve seen him perform in The Factory Theatre’s Matchbox room. As Workman points out himself at the start of the show, the Matchbox isn’t called the Matchbox because it’s a small room (it probably seats 80 people at the most, if that, also on temporary seats), but because it’s undeniably a complete and utter fire trap. Funnily enough, the black curtains that drape every wall do a good job of covering up the fact that it’s The Factory Theatre’s boardroom when it’s not Festival season. It is I think a wonderful little venue. I like that it’s enclosed and intimate — and it suits what Workman has to offer well.

For Sydney’s 10th Comedy Festival, Workman brings us his new show, War, about a drug-addicted news reporter who must travel north to report on said conflict. The world has lost its ability to dream, no one remembers how to, and a bomb is about to be deployed on us all.

Totes lolz right there, no? And get this, his last comedy show was about a beloved friend who committed suicide.

It’s not really fair to synopsise Workman’s shows like that, even though these descriptions are fairly accurate. Any kind of short summary of his performance will fail to articulate the gentle process of unfolding and coaxing that goes on amidst the laughter. There’s actually a surprising number of ‘lolz’ in his work.

Workman clearly doesn’t perform stand-up in the usual sense. Sure, his shows start that way, with witty, slightly offbeat ice-breaking banter to get the crowd on-side. Then before you really notice, he’s started to spin you a yarn, a grave one that he explains earnestly and you nod and listen and wonder where he’s headed with it. At the beginning, you’re not really sure if he’s talking about himself or someone he knows and then it heads off in a direction that is clearly fictional. But the fantasy he’s recounting feels both wildly imagined and disarmingly real at the same time. And then, of course, at a particular moment, a particular insight, he turns a corner unexpectedly and sends his audience back into gales of laughter.

This is what makes Workman a thorough storyteller for me — he actually tells you a story. A whole one, with a beginning and an end and a whole lot of middle that draws you in and makes you think. And yes his comedy is abundant but he’s not really there to make you laugh. This isn’t to say comics aren’t storytellers — they are and they need to be really good ones. But where Workman is different is that his whole process, his writing and his performance, is geared more toward weaving a tale that is in essence a thoughtful, haunting commentary on our modern existence.

Just to be clear, he is very funny. Workman himself seems hard to dislike. He has an odd accent that makes you wonder if he grew up in America or perhaps Scotland, though he didn’t. He’s quite affable and sweet and talks about all the things you expect a young male comedian to talk about — girlfriends, dumb people and being really angry a lot of the time. But the bulk of his shows are about telling a story, where the more traditional stand-up bits work like punctuation; literally, the comic relief.

What I like most about Workman is not just his desire to tell a story but his ambition with that process. He’s cramming minimalist, metaphor-driven surrealist theatre into an hour of comedy stand-up and those kinds of stories cannot be easy ones to construct for a crowd prepped for belly laughs. And while some parts are a little less polished than others and some bits seem to fly past a little too quickly, the imaginative drive and commitment needed to link Happy Meals to the origins of the universe are all good things in my book.

For me, Workman’s performance of War was more assured than the last time I saw him, he seemed more comfortable in his own skin, though I feel he is still in many ways yet to hit his stride as a performer. I do not say that disparagingly or patronisingly. Quite the opposite. I sense that he has a great deal more to offer the world, and I look forward very much to this storyteller’s next tale.

Michael Workman’s War is at The Factory’s Matchbox, Sydney, from the 29th of April to the 11th of May 2014. I went along to see the Friday 2nd of May show. Workman can be found at his official Facebook page here or more officially through Token Artists here

David O’Doherty’s Will Try To Fix Everything was on at The Enmore Theatre, Sydney, on the 26th of April 2014. O’Doherty’s official internet thingy is here.

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