Heard the one about the comedian who sold his soul?

A new play about the career of a stand-up exposes the cost of a life spent telling jokes

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The Independent Culture

Steve Johnston looks like a comedian – lumberjack shirt, stubble, hangdog expression. He sounds like a comedian, with his sweary observational diatribes on politicians, wives and gym etiquette. And from next week he will take to the main stage at one of London’s foremost comedy venues, Soho Theatre.

But Steve Johnston does not exist. He is a fictional character, played by Brian Doherty in Death of a Comedian. Owen McCafferty’s new play follows Steve from unknown to the big-time, from playing poky rooms above pubs, to landing a ruthless agent (played by Shaun Dingwall) and filling arenas.

“It takes comedy, and being a stand-up, as a noble ambition, which isn’t something our industry always does,” says Steve Marmion who directs the play, a collaboration with Belfast's Lyric Theatre and The Abbey, Dublin, and also runs Soho Theatre. “The power and the insight of a joke can add up to three-and-a-half hours of Chekhov sometimes.”

It also exposes the cost of a life spent telling jokes. When Steve's girlfriend asks him why he wants to be a stand-up, he says: “To be funny, and to be heard... And make a few quid.” Sounds simple, but in comedy, perhaps more than any other art form, the price for popularity is a nagging sense that one has sold one's soul for the loudest, easiest laugh. Then again, what is so evil about that?

“It could come across as a Faustian moral tale against being a sell-out. But I think it's a very balanced tale about a set of tough decisions pitting idealism against pragmatism,” Marmion says.

There's a fun game of spot-the-inspiration to be played, too. There are hints of Bishop in Steve's marathon-running, of Izzard's duck routine and of McIntyre's famous skip. “You can recognise the spirit of the Stewart Lees, the Michael McIntyres or the Russell Howards as you go along. But it isn't a biopic. It isn’t a personal slight on anyone who has made choices across the industry. The writer wasn’t lampooning specific routines, he was writing routines in the style of comedians who would be playing the Apollo,” says Marmion.

Over the course of the play, Steve performs various routines, which morph as his career does. He tells one joke – his signature – over and over again. The crucial question is, does it get more or less hilarious as the play goes on? He certainly gets more popular but does that mean funnier?

It is quite an undertaking for Doherty, to play a comedian on a comedians' stage. What might Soho Theatre regulars make of this imitator? “I've not invited them all on opening night. The Jimmy Carrs of this world have a very distinctive laugh and it would be an odd house to play to”, Marmion says. “I think they will like that comedy is presented as a noble art. But they might be a bit annoyed that an actor can pull it off so convincingly.”

14 April to 16 May, Soho Theatre, London