The universal art of laughter

The universal art of laughter

PETER TROMP chatted to actor JAMES CUNNINGHAM, currently making audiences roll down the aisles with laughter at Theatre On The Bay in the new farce ‘Don’t Dress For Dinner’.

‘Don’t Dress for Dinner’ has been described as one of the funniest shows of 2013. Jokes aside, what creates this successful comedic mix?
It’s a classic boulevard comedy that’s had audiences laughing all over the world for years and years, and this version has been really carefully crafted to remain faithful to the spirit in which it is written.

It is originally a French play that has been adapted for a South African audience. Which adaptations were made and how has the audience responded to these?
The adaptations were mostly done by director Steven Stead, from the play’s Durban production, and audiences respond instinctively to the localisations. Its sets a tone that South Africans relate to immediately, and whether you’re dealing with people from Sandton to rural Mpumulanga, or Parisians in rural France the comedy is the same.

You play the love rat at the centre of the chaos. Has this given you some compassion for cheaters?
Fortunately, farce is about the only genre where you can start the play with blatant infidelity, and everyone’s OK with it.

How did you prepare for the role?
I did a lot of detailed and thorough freaking out about learning all those lines, but luckily my wife patiently helped me at home by reading the other characters’ lines.

Audiences at Theatre On The Bay seem to really respond to corpsing in the farces that are presented there. Your co-star Robert Fridjhon has pretty much turned it into an art. Does that free you up as a performer, knowing that it is okay to make a mistake?
Yes, it does. I’ve always welcomed mistakes and they are gifts in almost any live performance. But in this production we all believe that it’s not our job to make them, and Steven has maintained a sharp focus on the play itself, and that’s meant we’ve had no real instances of corpsing. Except of course for that one time when Rob’s gown got snagged on the warthog and he couldn’t move.

Comedic productions pretty much depend on the chemistry of the cast to get audiences going. Tell us a little about the other performers in the show and how you guys achieved that level of comfort with one another.
We all come from hugely different performance backgrounds. Rob, Janna (Ramos-Violante) and Emily (Child) come from very varied text-based backgrounds, Nhlakanipho (Manqele) from a music background, Natasha (Sutherland) from years of television and myself from a physical and devising platform, so it’s been interesting to see how those worlds have come together. Over the course of the rehearsal process, and particularly the performances themselves, there’s been a gradual blend, and I think it’s this mix that makes this particular farce feel so different from many others.

The original play has toured some of the top stages of the world in France, London and the US. Why do you think it is so popular with modern theatregoers?
Boulevard comedy has become so popular everywhere, partly because it’s so easy to watch. Audiences know what they’re in for, they know the contract with the material and the players, and they can digest clearly defined situational comedy without having to think too much. And of course when it’s done well, laughing for two hours leaves people feeling really good.

What is your advice to anyone who finds themselves in your character Bernie’s position?
Repent! Repent! Or run.

Complete the following: Favourite movie; book; music album; song; midnight snack; holiday destination; lunch spot.
Ooh, favourites are impossible, and they constantly change. But right now; Movie: ‘The Girl on the Bridge’; Book: ‘Kafka on the Shore’; Midnight snack: De Villiers Chocolate please; Holiday: anywhere with sand and water warm enough to swim in; Lunch spot: almost anywhere in Kalk Bay.

What can we expect from you next? When will we see you in Cape Town again?
Theatre seems to be so vibrant in Cape Town. It’s alive and ubiquitous and completely varied. Although I don’t have any productions confirmed for Cape Town for the near future, I’m definitely trying.

* ‘Don’t Dress For Dinner’ is showing until May 11. Book at Computicket.