Review – Fully Committed, Menier Chocolate Factory, 28th September 2014

Fully CommittedI didn’t really know what Fully Committed was going to be about when I booked it; it was a comedy and I had faith with the Menier that nine times out of ten their productions are well worth the visit into town for Sunday matinee. A week or so before we went I discovered that it was actually a one-man, one-act 70 minute show, but didn’t think much more about that apart from what time train we would need to catch home. I also found it that was about the trials and tribulations of someone manning the reservation phone line at an exclusive and desirable restaurant. I knew it starred Kevin Bishop; and I knew I knew his name, but I couldn’t quite think how or put a face to the name. It was only reading the programme before the show that I realised everyone else in the audience would probably have seen him loads of times on TV but to us he was a complete unknown – we really don’t watch the box much at all.

Sam is an actor – much more out-of work than in- – so makes a living working for a tyrannical chef and other beastly colleagues at this upmarket Manhattan restaurant where you have to reserve your table at least two months in advance. Primarily his job is to man the phones, and take the reservations and queries. Sounds like an easy job? Think again. Massively high pressure, dealing with all sorts of rude and unpleasant people; it reminded me of when I was in charge of the team taking refuse collection complaint calls back in the 90s. Sam has to balance reasonable requests from ordinary people with outrageous ones from VIPs – and what a VIP wants, they get. He also has to juggle with his family life and Christmas commitments and the important task of taking auditions. It’s not an easy life.

This play was just the second to have been produced at the Menier when it opened in 2004, then starring Mark Setlock, who has directed this production. Both Mr Setlock and Becky Mode, the writer, have worked within the New York Restaurant scene so you can presume that there’s an awful lot of truth in what you see on stage. As for me, the difficulty of getting a booking at a restaurant is something I hadn’t really considered. If I try and book and they say they’re full, I just say “OK never mind” and end the conversation. It isn’t something I dwell on. Apparently, that’s quite unusual.

Kevin BishopLet’s start with the good things. It’s a very smart and watchable production. The fantastically messy set by Tim Shortall reminded me of my own work desk, dominated by this huge desk diary and dozens of scrunched up pieces of paper all around. The play relies heavily on a very complex and active sound plot – constant phone calls and buzzers coming in from all directions, and if any of that were to go wrong the whole show would be ruined – but it all takes place with pinpoint precision. The script, for the most part, is very funny and written with a great understanding of telephone manners, boasting an array of never-seen larger-than-life characters both inside and outside the restaurant that give it a sense of huge variety for a one-man show. Above all, there’s a tremendous performance by Kevin Bishop.

It’s a real tour-de-force, with his not only playing Sam but also adopting all the different voices of all the different callers and colleagues, in a fast-paced, energetic performance. In fact he doesn’t just adopt their voices but takes on their physical appearance too so you can really imagine how these “other people” look and act, as vividly as if they were actually being presented on stage by another actor. From his cast of dozens – hundreds even – I particularly liked the tenaciously exuberant Bryce, and manager Jean-Claude’s diva-like reaction to one of their uglier contacts. There’s also the rather charming way all Sam’s family have of signing off as they put the phone down – very nicely observed.

But, having started with the good things, you can tell I’m holding back on some not so good things, can’t you. You know me too well, gentle reader. The play itself is very slight. Whilst generally entertaining from start to finish, and whilst there is some character and plot progression during the course of the play, it still feels much more like an extended sketch than a play in its own right. It’s one of those pieces where, once you’re about fifteen or twenty minutes in to it, you feel like you’ve got its measure and it’s not going to have any more surprises for you; and largely, you’re right. Were it not for Mr Bishop’s remarkable performance, I’m not sure it would really hold your attention.

Secondly, it’s a bit confusing from a time perspective. At the beginning of the play Sam comes on, obviously just arriving for work, sometime in the morning. From then till the end of the play (with one brief exception where he goes off and cleans the toilets) it’s non-stop interruptions from the phones and colleagues, giving you the impression that it’s a punishing job where you never get a chance to stop and think. But then, 70 minutes later, when the play ends, he’s clearly reached the end of the working day. So you come to understand that it’s actually not all taking place in real-time, but is actually some kind of concatenation of chunks of the working day all stitched together to give the impression of one relentless nightmare of a day. If they’d had specific scene changes you could have made it feel like a full day. But as it is, it feels artificially compressed, deliberately pressurised by the writer, thereby becoming neither one thing nor the other – and that didn’t work for me.

Sam on the phoneAnd then of course, you’ve got the slightly disappointing nature of a one-act play that isn’t really long enough to sustain an evening’s or an afternoon’s entertainment just by itself. It would be fine on its own at somewhere like the Edinburgh Fringe, where it would dovetail into one’s daily schedule perfectly; or combined with another one-act play to create a meatier programme. We once went to the Oxford Playhouse to see Ennio Marchetto, the amazing paper-costume mime artist – but it started at 7.30 and was finished by 8.20 and so we were twiddling our thumbs for the rest of the evening. You get a similar sensation with this production.

It could be the shortness of the duration that may have put some people off, as I have to say this was the smallest audience (probably half full) of any that we’ve seen in the Menier since we started regularly going there about seven years ago. It certainly merits a larger audience, and the people who were there were absolutely thrilled with Mr Bishop’s performance, many of whom gave him a standing ovation. If you’re happy to go and see a divertissement that you can fit in before dinner, then this is a very entertaining way to spend 70 minutes; and Kevin Bishop’s performance is definitely well worth seeing.