Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Health Under Fire

Death by Pie
Death by Pie
The GM Fringe Festival at Joshua Brooks, Manchester
23 July 2015 to 25 July 2015

The 2015 GM Fringe has offered challenging and innovative productions. Even so, the inclusion of ‘Health Under Fire’- a comedy that is actually funny-comes as a complete surprise.

In1950 inspector Arnold Grace (Scott Hodgson) investigates reports that pharmaceuticals from the Royal Infirmary Hospital are finding their way onto the black market. Although the NHS has been in operation for only two years Grace’s investigations uncover issues such as reliance on agency staff and those from overseas and the creeping privatising of the service that mirror present day concerns.

The Fringe circuit lends itself to stand up comedy, as the limited financial resources and physical space available are rarely sufficient to support full theatrical productions. Death by Pie tackles this limitation by simply ignoring it. Rapid changes in scene are achieved using props obviously constructed out of cardboard that would be risible if they did not work so well. The use of comic sound effects (exaggerated rapid footsteps and the noise of retreating cars) add greatly to the atmosphere of inspired lunacy.

The tone of the production is highly irreverent with the cast poking fun at clichéd character types and staging the opening sequence in the style of the over-cheerful newsreel reporting of the 1950s. Actually that is not entirely correct; the company are very respectful of their comic heroes and go to extremes to pay tribute. They pay their respects to shows as diverse as ‘Police Squad’, ‘Scooby Doo’and ‘Dad’s Army’ (when a character refuses to identify himself a voice cries out’ Don’t tell him Henry’). Hell, even J B Priestley gets a nod.

This nudges ‘Health Under Fire’ towards pastiche and feels a bit like cheating. You can’t be entirely sure if the audience is laughing at the jokes or responding to the affection shown to an older routine with which they are already familiar.

The main reason for the success of the show is that the cast have the sense and discipline to play it straight. Although lines are delivered in the manner of the 1950s (which now sounds artificial) the cast avoid getting laughs with the lazy technique of mugging for the audience (with one exception). But then they really have no need to stoop to such practices; the script is a gem – full of glorious wordplay and puns.

‘Health Under Fire’ is a very funny play and it will be fascinating to see whether Death by Pie are able to move away from the comfort zone of their influences and if their next work will be less reliant on quoting from their heroes.

 

Reviewer: David Cunningham