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THE KING OF LAUGHTER (article first published : 2004-07-10)

The King of Laughter which I saw recently at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, was commissioned by the National Arts Council in their search for new play initiatives in 2002.

Written and directed by Craig Freimond, it is produced by Freemouth which was established in 2003 to produce original South African work for the stage and screen. The play stars James Borthwick, Claire Watling and Wayne van Rooyen.

The King of Laughter brought back fond memories of working with Springbok Radio’s comedy team in Durban under the sure direction of Tom Meehan. Standard favourites like Men from the Ministry and Father, Dear Father were performed before live audiences whereas other comedy series were recorded with “non-live” audiences, courtesy of the “laughter machine”.

Instead of producing musical notes, each key of this electronic keyboard creates a different kind of laugh. A particular skill and understanding of comedy is required of the operator to match titters, guffaws, giggles or the glorious unrestrained sound of hilarity to the comic level of the script and its actors. The same process of laugh tracks also applies to television sitcoms.

It is around the creation of canned laughter – or indeed, laughter itself - that the story of The King of Laughter is woven. Barry (James Borthwick) is a sound technician highly experienced and skilled in his field, a fact not apparently appreciated by his cool and elegant boss Natasha (Claire Watling). His company is now owned by a large corporation who decide that his department is not sufficiently representative and he is retrenched to make way for a person of colour. However, it is soon blatantly evident that his replacement, Jerome (Wayne van Rooyen) has zilch sense of humour.

So, not only does Barry have to train him on the equipment, he has to teach him to laugh. He’s also very peeved that the powers that be do not see fit to compensate him for his extensive library of laughter which he sourced himself, rejecting the library selection with disdain.

With its short snappy scenes and jazzy score, this is one of the most enjoyable plays I have seen in a long time, although I admit that my association with the canned laughter process gave the show an extra dimension for me. Bradley Goss’s set is suitably cluttered and midly chaotic with Natasha’s office set higher upstage in cool isolation.

James Borthwick could coax laughter out of a rock face and he is an utter delight as Barry. He is well matched by Wayne Van Rooyen who puts in an enchanting performance as the serious and solemn Jerome who slowly builds his comic appreciation and eventually outsmarts his master! Claire Watling is suitably detached and hard-nosed but the ending has a positive twist where she reveals a generous heart. The ending has a positive twist and the final moments had me in helpless giggles.

Don’t miss The King of Laughter if it comes your way. – Caroline Smart




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