On December 4, 2007, students of Professor Janet Godwin’s First-Year Seminar, “British Comedy”, mounted a performance of a slightly absurd comedy: One-Way Pendulum by N. F. Simpson.
In a way, the show depicts the day-to-day activities of an English family and the efforts of its members to escape the mundane. Kirby Groomkirby is engaged in scientific research to try to teach weight-speaking scales to sing – using Pavlov’s dog experiments as a model. Although he may sound eccentric, he is not the only one to be characterized that way. His sister Sylvia, played by first-year Jane Scheinman, complains to her mother about the short length of her arms, and shows off her “Momento Mori”, which is supposed to remind her of death. This keepsake was given to Sylvia by her sweetheart, Stan, whom she is supposed to be seeing in the evening.
The plot begins to unfurl as the play spins into confusion with the arrival of Stan, Myra – a family friend who gets paid to eat up food – and old Aunt Mildred, who rants on the topic of transportation to the Outer Hebrides. Through the conversations of the characters, the audience finds out that Arthur Groomkirby, played by first-year Dan Gleason, enjoys studying legal processions and trials. Eventually, the play moves on to a courtroom scene in which Kirby Groomkirby, the son of Arthur Groomkirby and played by senior Ryan Dunbar, is on trial for murder. After examination of several key witnesses, it was determined that Kirby’s method for killing was to tell a joke, then hit the victim over the head with a blunt object. The purpose of this tactic is to allow the victim to die happily.
The interrogation of witnesses is one of the biggest sources of comedy in the play. For example, the prosecuting counsel argues that, due to changes in metabolism during sleep, one individual cannot have a valid alibi for a certain date as he was not the same person on that date. That same night, the judge plays three-handed whist against Arthur without cards. The two argue as to who should be, and who is, the dummy.
The next morning, a strong defense is made for the case of Kirby Groomkirby that, although he looked like a “wee undertaker” as a boy, he only wanted his victims to die laughing. For this reason, Kirby is acquitted on all charges, much to the amusement of the audience.
One Way Pendulum is an example of absurd humour. But just what is “absurd humour”? First-year Gus Hobbs says it is the kind of humour that makes a spectator question his or her senses and understanding of the humour, that doesn’t seem to have any clear direction – nonsensical and ludicrous.
This play, which starred several members of the British Comedy First-Year Seminar, was a great success. Hobbs, who played Stan, said he was surprised that the audience laughed so much,which they did whenhe danced to the song “Ticket to Ride” by the Beetles. Spectator first-year Shannon Luckey said she really enjoyed the East London accent the players put on, which actress and first-year Tara James says is one of the hardest things to do.
As challenging as acting can be, these actors managed to get inside the heads of the characters they play simply by thinking “outside the box” as it were. The actors all agree that Arthur Groomkirby was the most difficult character to play, because, as one actor puts it, he “creates the world but is the most variable in it” and according to Gleason, Arthur “doesn’t have simple, specific character traits.”
Dunbar, the Teaching Assistant for this course, was amazed at how much this piece had changed from its initial read to its final performance, and how an audience can make all the difference.
“The lights come on,” Dunbar said, “and you’re filled with new energy from the audience and with the excitement of a performance.”