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Play On Words
Published on Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Perhaps it was hubris. Perhaps it was boredom. Perhaps the spark of creative genius lit a powder-keg, which promptly blew up in their faces. Whatever the reason, it's a bizarre and unwise gimmick which defines Three's Company's Play On Words.

You'll file into the Pleasance Dome to find three men engaged in personable banter on-stage. It's a brief chance to get to know them, before you're called on to decide - wait for it - which actor plays which role. After a panto-like vote-by-handclap, they'll step into character, and the play at last will begin... based on whatever cast list was handed out just a few seconds ago.

There was one specific moment when these shenanigans impressed me: a physical-comedy juggling scene with a water bottle, which I calculate they must have perfected with six different combinations of thrower and catcher on stage. But sadly, this was the only time such perfection was achieved. For most of the play, the actors stumbled over lines and cut across each other - indeed, suffered all the problems you'd expect from a performance which has had just one-sixth of the usual rehearsal time.

I felt the loss acutely, because Play On Words ought to be better than this. Acclaimed by critics on a previous visit to the Fringe, it has an intriguing structure and an engaging plot, where the two leading characters re-enact the past to discover the chilling truth about a missing friend. There is, indeed, fine word-play; if it's occasionally a little too clever for its own good, well, you could say the same about Stoppard. Some details which first seemed inconsequential and over-emphasized are satisfyingly explained towards the end, and there's a genuine air of pleasant bamboozlement as you try to figure out exactly what's going on.

And, when you discover the answer, it's well-judged and dark. I can't say too much about the last third of the play, or I'll ruin it for you - but I can tell you that all is explained, and the explanation hurts. Words aren't just to be played with, it turns out; words can lead to tragedy, too.

So don't get me wrong: Play On Words isn't bad. Even with its burdensome character-switch stunt, it beats most of what you'll find at the Fringe. But I know Three's Company have it in them to be truly exceptional, because I five-starred their show Auditorium last year; so I just wish they'd brought back the slickness and energy they displayed then. Instead, they've channelled their effort into a grand-scale gimmick - one I fear will amuse their audience much less than it does themselves.

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