Mono: A Three-Person One Man Show is the type of show you do not see that often these days. The publicity blurb states it is in the spirit of Joyce Grenfell’s or Bob Newhart’s style of comedy from the sixties and seventies, but it reminded me more of watching television shows like The Two Ronnies, Morecambe & Wise or, perhaps because Max Gillies is in the cast, our own Mavis Bramston & Naked Vicar shows.
The show consists of a series of situational vignettes, each featuring a new character, with each actor given three solo spots before a short ensemble gag to finish proceedings. The quality of these vignettes varies significantly – but then again, not every sketch in those old TV shows that we all enjoyed way back then was a winner either.
To kickstart proceedings the audience find themselves having to endure assembly time at an exclusive private school called St Gaberdine’s. The Principal, played by Emily Taheny, is a battleaxe and she is definitely not amused by her students tittering at her unintentional double entendres – for example, the bird watcher’s group update where the school matron was delighted to have taken some snaps of a ‘black cockatoo’ over the weekend. As a result of our giggles all of us soon earn some demerits and are risking detentions. Whilst some of the humour in the skit seems to have been dredged up from comic scripts of the distant past, Taheny delivers it all with curt precision and makes the situation work.
Later, Taheny comes back as a self-awareness guru to share her six essential rules for happiness, and finally as a drunken mother delivering a speech at her daughter’s wedding. Each of these characters are clearly drawn from stereotypes we can all recognise. Taheny gives them all enough humanity for us to warm to them, but also injects enough ‘cringe factor’ to make them deliciously funny.
John Wood’s trio of characters were not as instantly likeable though. His first appearance is as a contemporary ‘bush poet’ who writes verse about toasters and radio weathermen. Wood seemed to read all of these poems rather than recite them, rendering the segment a little stilted and this part of the show was subsequently the least enjoyable.
Wood’s performances steadily improved throughout the show. His stint as an auctioneer selling off the goods and chattels of an English aristocrat was still, however, a mixed bag. Structured simply as a list of items announced ready for bidding that all provided an opportunity for a stand-alone gag, some were much more successful than others. Some concluded with groanworthy puns (i.e. The combined value of fifty pigs, and fifty horses…? No, I won’t spoil it for you!), and some were a little too obtuse, such as the full-sized replica of the Taj Mahal made of marzipan.
His final stint, in the familiar costume of a police sergeant a la his much loved role in Blue Heelers, saw him reporting from his case notes to his superiors on a recent incident whilst out on patrol. This was a clever device which allowed his yarn to unspool slowly and hilariously and highlight his terrific sense of timing as an actor.
Max Gillies trio of characters were a very odd bunch.
He first appears as a conductor responding to a bodiless voiceover from the gods who delivers ‘The Old Person’s Guide To The Orchestra’. I’m sure that most people of a certain age will have encountered a recording of ‘The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra’ at some time in their childhoods, and this segment follows, and sends up, the same format.
This skit allowed for a lot of musical comedy and was also reminiscent those old fifties records that used snippets of lyrics from popular songs to construct a narrative. Some of it was very clever but, strangely, all Gillies had to do was stand there with a baton and wave it around a bit. It seemed a waste of his talent to create a sketch where he had so little to actually do.
Max returned next as a local vicar delivering a sermon on the topic of ‘Questions’. This was perhaps the most old-fashioned segment of them all, often relying on cheesy sexual innuendo for its punchlines. It felt like I had time travelled back in time to revisit an old episode of a Dick Emery or Benny Hill program.
Evoking echoes of Barry Humphries’ melancholic character, Sandy Stone, Gillies final solo spot sees him create an old widower visiting an art gallery – and cleverly metaphorical – just before closing time.
He shuffles around the stage bemused and bewildered by the ‘modern’ art of Picasso, Pollock and Kahlo, all the while making some old jokes at their expense. His character often works references to his deceased wife into his monologue and it all concludes, poignantly, in front of a nude by Lucian Freud where he realises to his delight that is a portrait of his naked wife when she was young. The tenderness of this last moment where he sighs and decrees her picture as souvenir ‘mugworthy’ was wonderfully affective.
Overall, Mono is a fast-paced show with plenty of jokes throughout to keep even the most cynical patron smiling. Sure, some of the jokes skirt the outer perimeter of political correctness and hark back to a less enlightened time, but it is all a matter of context.
Would I see it again? I probably would, especially if someone paid me ‘a hundred sows and bucks’ to do so!
Mono is playing at The Playhouse at the Adelaide Festival Centre until February 5.
Tickets available here: Mono tix