Review by Ellis Koch
Confession: I, never at a loss for words, have struggled somewhat to find the right ones for this review. A part of why I review theatre is because I was often, as a creative myself, disappointed with the lack of quality or care on display in many of the published reviews that came my way – for my own work and for the work of friends. A reviewer, whether they recognise it or not, has a certain power to encourage or discourage creatives in their endeavours. A reviewer should be honest, but not smug. Brutal at times, but fair. When they write something negative it should be as constructive as possible. They must not be held back by the potential emotions of the creatives whose work they are reviewing but, simultaneously, they should consider how their words may impact the people they are writing about.
You know: “With great power comes great responsibility”.
As a reviewer my job is to take in the production before me, break it down into all of the elements involved – staging, lighting, direction, costumes, sound, performances etc. etc. – and then give a fair assessment of the execution of each element. I also have to, I think, try and understand what was trying to be achieved and how close the individuals involved came to achieving that goal. So, you would think that a production like Jan Pedinski – Barely Live, which had very few elements to address, would be relatively easy to write a review for. Not so. I wrote several drafts of this review and they were scathing. I wanted to be scathing. But every time I reviewed my review I couldn’t bring myself to send it off.
That’s my preamble. Let’s get down to the technical and then, at the end, I’ll explain my reticence with regard to the initial drafts.
Jan Pedinski – Barely Live is a one hour monologue written and performed by eighteen year old Alexander Dymalovski. You could consider it character driven stand-up comedy. In fact, Dymalovski name-checks Dame Edna Everage within the monologue and you can see some parallels between the two characters – namely a bit of a cheeky streak and the fact that both women are played by men. Both characters have a best friend that they like to reference in comparison to themselves, usually in a belittling putdown. But the comparisons between Edna and Jan are thin and they stop there – which is O.K. with regards to Pedinski being a different character to Everage but there are some technical drawbacks that point to less than flattering comparisons. Chiefly: Dymalovski doesn’t have the performance chops to pull the character of Pedinski off. Whereas Humphries has crafted a character that is believable, Pedinski is a little too much on the caricature side of things. Edna Everage is a beloved character, in spite of being an awful person, because Humphries takes her seriously and treats her with respect – and in spite of her larger than life persona, she is accepted and she shines. Dymalovski doesn’t quite have the performance skills or the writing skills to bring Pedinski to this level. Not yet, anyway. Humphries has had decades to hone his craft and to fine tune Edna into what she is today. Dymalovski is eighteen. The writing often revolves around sexual jokes. And not incredibly intelligent or well-written ones, either. There is a juvenile treatment of the subject that feels like it was lifted straight out of a high-school lunch time. Admittedly this goes somewhat with the character of Pedinski – an elderly Jewish woman who was once an exotic dancer and displays a very forward and bold attitude towards sex and her own sexuality. However the language utilised by Dymalovski often jars with the age of the character. Turns of phrase and various words that suit modern vernacular are out of place coming from Jan. There are some genuinely funny moments throughout but these are truly far and few between and they generally don’t revolve around the sexual. The moments where the monologue shines are when Dymalovski writes with a maturity befitting the age of his character. That isn’t to say Pedinski can’t be youthful – but she is definitely not eighteen. And whilst she herself claims to be “Seventy-twelve”, potentially hinting at the juvenility of her personality, the material itself is juvenile, not the character. And I’m a lover of low-brow comedy - I worked in dinner theatre for several years! But low-brow does not mean poor quality and it does not mean juvenile.
All of this is a way of me saying that Dymalovski may need to age a bit himself, to mature somewhat, before his writing will resonate as the character of Pedinski. If Jan Pedinski – Barely Live is a first dip into the character and an experiment in what works and what doesn’t work – a way of fine-tuning the material – then I can accept this. As a standalone monologue that is complete I feel that the writing was way too half-baked to make the character interesting, believable or consistently funny.
Following on from the above: I do think that if Dymalovski’s performance skills were much more polished than they are then perhaps the material could work, even as it is. However the character really is let down by the performance. Pedinski is an old Jewish woman but Dymalovksi’s accent is terrible by virtue of being entirely inconsistent. It slips regularly on certain words and is, at best, a very rough impression of a Jewish accent. His mannerisms are . . . vague. Lots of arm waving and gesticulation that seem out of place and lack confidence in the execution. Good actors make choices, clear, confident choices in their movements. There is a concept known as economy of movement – the idea that actions are tied to specific ideas and/or emotions actors want to communicate. It is quite a fundamental part of actor training and it is there, among other things, to stop actors from moving for no apparent reason. In spite of the very small stage space, Dymalovski manages to break from any economy of movement throughout the piece – but this can also be contributed to the direction from Ned Harper Stanford, Dymalovski’s collaborator, who should have helped cull all of the unnecessary motions and gestures and help Dymalovski pick moments of poignant movement that connect the character to the dialogue and both of those to the audience. There are also a couple of sight gags but these don’t really achieve much or amount to anything special.
If there is one saving grace to the performance it is Dymalovski’s dedication to the piece at hand – the energetic delivery and the ability to get through a one hour monologue with little to no stumbling or blank moments. And even this is somewhat marred by Dymalovski dropping in and out of character every so often. Little smiles that belong to the actor when delivering certain lines he finds amusing rather than delivering them sincerely as Jan. This ties in with what I was saying about Humphries’ serious and respectful treatment of Edna – stay in character, commit to it. You are a man playing a woman so it is particularly important to keep on task or else you fall into poor caricature. If that is your intention, that’s fine too – I have no issue with the hideous caricatures of women that the members of Monty Python portrayed throughout their careers. But these were deliberately grotesque - a choice - because nobody was going to believe that these men were women. And yet, even with this choice, the consistency of their portrayals actually mean that I understand instinctively that the characters I am watching are women. With some proper training and experience Dymalovski could bring a character like Jan Pedinski to life and leave the audience no doubt that they had just spent an hour with an old Jewish woman ruminating on her life. From a tech point of view there is not much to comment on – the venue was equipped as a stand-up comedy space – very small stage, fixed set/backdrop that bore no connection to the performance and some very simple lighting – only a couple of LED lamps from what I could tell. There was no sound or music. None of this really detracted from the performance which is sold (or not sold) entirely off the back of Dymalovski’s performance and his writing.
One might read this review, with the preamble, and think “I thought he wasn’t going to be scathing, yet here he is, scathing away . . . !” and it’s true. The review is still scathing. It's worth a note that the monologue is complete - as a character driven piece it is realised - it's just that the material is very . . . low quality. I wouldn’t recommend people spend money to see it, at least not as a standalone piece – maybe in some revue. But I could very easily just leave it at a dissection and critique of the elements . . . but I don’t want to, and this is where my dilemma laid. I don’t want to write something that will cut down two young men who have the guts and the discipline to write, craft and present one hour of dialogue to the public. I have to be scathing because, if you want people to review your work and you want people to pay money to see your work then I have to honestly say that there is a lot of room for improvement. There is something here – it’s rough, it suffers from a lack of experience and feels raw and more akin to a half hour high school drama exercise – but there is something here. Within the context of two young men at the beginning of their artistic careers, who display some impressive credits to their names (Pinter, Ionesco and Stoppard), I am compelled to applaud their efforts and wish to end this piece by encouraging both of them to keep exploring their craft, to fine-tune their skills, to hopefully take something from this review and go on to forge wonderful theatrical experiences for audiences in the future.
The last words of Pedinski as she leaves the stage are a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware throwaway, but suggest an uncompromising attitude that can serve one very well as an artist: There will be no refunds.