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[Performance Analysis:] WONDER DRUG: A COMEDY ABOUT CYSTIC FIBROSIS, Omnibus Theatre, London.


NB: As the performer shares the same name as the onstage persona we are presented, 'Charlie Merriman' and, simply, 'Merriman' will be used to signify the former and 'Charlie' the latter.


This is most enjoyable and engaging performance, directed by Helen Eastman and written and performed by Charlie Merriman. I find its main areas of concern, however, to be in the consideration of the inconsistency of its performance style and its themes.


The first issue concerning style starts with Merriman being in the house as we enter the stage. This would be a wonderful way of breaking the audience-performer divide if Merriman divided his attention amongst the audience members equally, his presence thus seeming deliberate and meaningful, and not divided uniquely amongst a couple of familiar attendees. This could cause a sense of tension in the audience, rendering the environment hostile and unpredictable as they attempt to gauge whether this is, in fact, a performer as Merriman lingers around, not introducing himself yet restless and obstructive. Perhaps on a more primitive level, it could also develop a sense of favouritism amongst the ignored audience members and thus one of inferiority and, later, distance, particularly if this is prolonged. If a coherent, progressive and effective activity type or reason for having him on stage cannot be found to justify and embellish his presence, he should not be on stage as we enter.


Concerns with metatheatricality develop only once again, however, when an audience member is invited to suggest an excuse as to why Charlie cannot attend his Zoom Zumba class tomorrow. This moment is not only stylistically inconsistent but also endangers momentum and pacing, as it did on the night I saw the performance, with Merriman surrendering agency to the audience and thus losing control and compromising the performance’s flow and rhythm in the process. In no other part of the performance is an audience member directly included in this way; this is a huge issue, destabilising the audience's understanding of their involvement.


That this audience member's suggestion should then alter the plot, alter the conversation Charlie has with his new partner, adds an extra unwanted layer of metatheatre to the performance. We learn here that its plot is not concrete, untouchable, a historical 'reality'; we learn that Charlie's story is being 'made up as it progresses', and therefore we compromise the realism, authenticity and relatability of the narrative and character. And there are already concerns of superficiality with the plot that make this all the more problematic.


However, beyond these moments, I must say that this is the most consistent performance I have seen in a while in terms of its employment of metatheatrical techniques beyond these I have mentioned so far. The audience, for the vast majority of the performance, are kept at a clear amount of distance and are permitted to maintain a promising, coherent [‘passive’] relationship.


I would just urge the creatives to consider the consistency of the role and function of the audience within the performance, which are currently unstable: are we active participants, removed witnesses, silent addressees, etc.? This should be consistent for the best reception, and enjoyment, of the performance possible — we should know our place and what is expected of us as spectators.


Merriman maintains a confident yet calm and amicable demeanour throughout the entirety of the performance, consciously witty, and consistent in his profile throughout. He has a great command of the text, and boldness when approaching the audience.

I only have a few concerns insofar as his acting, but they are quite crucial ones: Firstly, Merriman must develop a greater corporeal and topographical awareness for this performance; currently, we have him frequently dropping props on the floor, knocking into some and breaking others: the coathanger that fell off the privacy screen, the arm of the pill's glasses, the dropped syringe, etc. I can only recommend greater practice of handling and retrieving the theatrical properties but also of the repeated sequences, upon which I shall elaborate below, for which choreography is performed shakily at present.


Currently, there is also a lack of intensity during these sequences, and the resulting feeling is that there is a reliance upon the intensity and suspense of the sequences themselves as opposed to upon one that emanates from the performer. My advice would be to not rely on the theme of repetition, pacing and activity alone to develop a sense of tension; it feels far too artificial, deliberate and thus lacklustre. Tension should not be the end goal but a by-product of the presentation of concrete information about the character and their circumstances. It should exist naturally, authentically, organically, within the body and the mind of the actor, not too heavily adorned by topographical and choreographic specificities.


Another example of this issue is in the aforementioned moment wherein an audience member was invited to disrupt the flow of the performance, making a statement found by the majority of the audience to be hilarious and enhancing. This was met with a degree of reserve, coolness and acceptance. Though he incorporated this into the story, clearly aware of its comedic effect, his delivery lacked a certain amount of impetus.


This also brings me to my last concern regarding acting: I would urge in Merriman a greater receptivity of the audience. Here, if the audience found it so funny, he could both reclaim and enhance the hilarity of the moment by really exaggerating the delivery of the excuse on the phone, now made aware that this is something this particular audience will respond to and tailoring his delivery to their desire. Additionally, the ambit of his gaze is, for the most part of the performance, restricted to the top centre of the audience. If he were to scan the entire audience more regularly, a more authentic, profound and inclusive environment would be produced.


Moving on from acting, there is also a notable attempt to connect together, and connect with, the audience in a spiritual and ritualistic deep-breathing exercise, and this is not only another example of why it is important that the audience must be aware of their function and role, but also an example of how the various comedic and dramatic techniques allow for a certain illegibility and inconsistency when paired together as they are throughout. With repetition being a recurrent technique, the audience naturally becomes hyper-attuned to rhythms and substructures, and we have already deep-breathed earlier in the performance, and we took three deep breaths and no more than three. Noting this and the fact that this performance has hitherto alleviated through comedic devices, and glossed over, any sense of profound emotion [namely here: trauma, struggle, pain, discomfort, fear, etc.], it seems unlikely that the audience would bother to take any more than these three deep breaths nor that they would do so with any profound reflections and feeling. Indeed, this was perceptible as Merriman delivered the line, “You can open your eyes now,” when the vast majority, if not all, of the audience had long already done so. Again, receptivity is key in moments like these.


Sticking with this theme of dramatic vs comedic techniques, I reflect upon the post-performance debrief wherein Merriman expressed that the aim of this performance is to raise awareness of the potential of modern medicine, what new studies and research can achieve and how lives can be bettered for these. However, the revelation of a particular statistic — that those with cystic fibrosis also have an increased risk of developing cancer but, for their diminished life expectancy, rarely see this potentiality — is presented in such a way that a call for action becomes squashed by a fatalistic, pessimistic "Why bother?" attitude. Merriman conveys this thus: "Damned if you do; damned if you don't." I would recommend, in order to align better with this performance's main objective, that this wording be reconsidered and that a different approach be taken: "But that's a risk I'm willing to take" or "It's worth a shot" — something optimistic, empowering, encouraging of the new advancements that the audience are so desired to support and donate to. Pessimism rarely works as a call to action for an audience, and this is a comedy, after all, but I do understand that this tragic undertone was perhaps attractive to add a layer of depth, feeling and realism to the performance — this is unnecessary for this text, however.


As for the comedic devices alone, some very intriguing and hilarious ones are being used, most notably puppetry. Puppetry sequences are most creative — from the puppet pills to the pillow and stuffed socks to communicate Charlie's sleeping. The sequences are also playfully educational and revealing, encapsulating well Charlie's personal history as well as medical specificities. There is just a tendency to over-rely upon comedic devices — especially repetition — and the substructures we are presented are in danger of becoming quite predictable and tiresome. Similarly, whilst repeated sequences are too long, fundamental storytelling techniques tend to be underused: we rush from skit to vignette to anecdote — complete with game shows, solo ballads, puppeteering, impersonations… — and the overall identity of the performance and its style becomes compromised. We have moments where Charlie starts to explain a story using one storytelling technique but proceeds with another, and the techniques fight for stage time: mime, choreographed sequences, monologues, the game shows. This should be re-examined, and a 'show OR tell' attitude should be employed in various areas.



“A moving performance with honourable objectives and an inviting solo performer but with a degree of superficiality and inconsistency in style and mood.”



 

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