Comedy: A not-so-funny man came over from Japan

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Indy Lifestyle Online
JAPAN'S most famous comedian doesn't tell jokes. Nothing wrong with that: a barrage of jokes can become wearisome. What may be of more concern is that the man described in his own programme as "Tokyo's Woody Allen", "Japan's answer to Rowan Atkinson" and, alarmingly, "a blend of Robin Williams, Eric Bogosian and Lily Tomlin" doesn't make you laugh.

There are titters here and there, and, at a stretch, the occasional chuckle. But there are no thigh-slapping, split-your-side moments. So those misled by the PR into expecting an evening of how's-your-father and have-you-noticed with a Japanese twist will be disappointed.

Issey Ogata doesn't do stand-up; he does theatre. He is a monologist with a gift for mime, not an in-your-face gagster. He doesn't sign off by screaming "My name's Issey Ogata. Thank you and goodnight"; he politely asks his audience to fill in a questionnaire assessing his performance on their way out.

Recognising this is important for your enjoyment of Issey's show - but not quite as fundamental as how you decide to deploy your headphones. Handed out at the door, these allow you three ways to watch Ogata. First, you can pretend to be fluent in Japanese and ostentatiously dispense with the equipment. Taking this option consigns you to a night of mime. Fair enough if that's your bag, but be warned that the cackle from everyone else's Walkmans is as irritating in the theatre as it is in the tube.

Or you can own up to your deficiencies as a linguist and make use of the translation provided through the headphones. Sadly, this is not ideal. Thus encumbered, it is hard to shrug off the feeling that you are watching an in-flight movie. Worse, the translation provided by Timothy Screech is delivered in a most unscreechlike flat monotone. This decision, doubtless, was taken on artistic grounds, so as not to distract from the performance. But it is disorientating to watch someone clearly doing their nut on stage while listening to someone else talking in the dull, flat tones of a man on the verge of being prescribed Prozac.

Alternatively, by adjusting your headset, you can leave one ear open for Issey and the other tuned in to Timothy. This is the optimum way to watch Ogata. By combining the translation with the delivery, it becomes almost comprehensible.

In over half of his seven monologues, Ogata attacks the world of the "salaryman". It's a world in which loans are a status symbol - "the size of borrowed money is a sign of a person's importance", a world in which working for IBM is considered "classy". A letter of resignation should be carried at all times as a weapon of last resort - "stab or be stabbed".

In the remaining monologues, he portrays a gangster politician in a piece sufficiently universal to require no translation. Displaying his wide range, he appears as a Ronnie Corbett-in-Sorry! figure in search of a wife, and as a hesitant nurse anxious to join the Rainbow Coconut Band - "Hawaiian music will redeem the world." Throughout, Ogata performs impeccably. Every movement is carefully considered and perfectly executed.

Yet he remains only almost comprehensible. The puns, if there were any, went flying over this non-Japanese-speaking critic's head. And so, I fear, did the satire. The show seemed somewhat tame and sedate. The targets were easy and treated gently. But the same could be said about many of our own self-appointed satirists. He'd be fine on a quiet night at the Edinburgh Festival, but doesn't really make for a rollicking night in the West End.

Lyric Shaftesbury Ave, W1 (0171 494 5045), to 14 Mar.

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