You can tell playwright Fergus Burnand, who co-directs Same Again at the Golden Goose Theatre with Nora Dahle Borchgrevink, has worked a few shifts in a pub. Snatches of gossip, idle chatter, and barstool philosophy form a joyously convincing, if slightly beer-goggled impression of everyday life in this entertaining series of vignettes set in your typical (vaguely metropolitan) boozer.
A single table plays host to a dozen or so rounds of drinks. Every time the drinks are cleared, two new characters take a seat. It’s a simple premise, and the revolving-door of revellers makes for a packed anthology show of ostensibly unrelated dialogues, from drunken explanations of extreme wealth using grains of rice to a sozzled high school reunion with an old bully mate.
A confident outing by an ensemble cast of emerging talent makes for a compelling show, with a couple of standout performances. Swatting exasperatedly at a barfly, Mary Timbrell-Hill brings a welcome slapstick edge to a well-observed, occasionally understated script.
Throwaway remarks turn jibes between pals, with Una Burnand as a risibly unhelpful confidante convinced her pal is ‘on the spectrum’. Tom Gould-Scott is pitch perfect as the distracted writer-ex who hijacks his drink with an old flame, after her obsession with sun cream sparks a Quixotic apocalyptic story that escapes us and everyone one else. Like most punters, he’s preoccupied and falls short of really saying what he means.
While the format is the ‘same again’, no two-hander is - not least because the poison of choice changes with each scene. I suspect there’s more to this, like an alcoholic Rorschach test of who’s drinking what. Is it wine o’clock or hard spirits this afternoon? Crucially, the events of the show occur after lunch - an essential and frankly, wildly underplayed detail that gets lost in the mix, which tells us exactly how judgy we should feel about our day-drinkers.
Part of the fun lies in solving the mystery of strangers’ conversations, the sort you can’t help but listen to from across the room, no matter how juicy or inane, because they concern us least of all. Same Again indulges our nosiness, the ‘You’ll never guess what so-and-so did!’ that rallies our sense of what’s normal or peculiar. Burnand knows this, and it’s to his credit that the show feels authentically listless, true to the spirit of idle gossip. If there’s an overarching narrative, it’s wisely buried beneath jokes and ping-pong dialogue that feels genuine because it’s myopic.
Often the dialogue looks to the bottom of a pint glass for answers and comes up empty. When this happens the cast double as bartenders, who wipe the table clean and each scene with it. This silent choreography is the engine of the show and a neat, in-world solution to the musical chairs that plagues every other sparsely staged fringe production. It also implicates the actors in the labour of the service industry the play passes comment on, which is the subtext of the show.
If ever you do tire of a scene, say, of two drunkards self-consciously circling the same point, like an unwitting Beckett parody put on by regulars at your local dive, there’s always a new pair of characters waiting to take their seat. It’s like speed-dating, in that sense - if speed-dates were actually fun, full of genuine laughter, and for pint-size comedies instead of singletons. Most scenes are and joyfully capture the meandering, often spurious patter of pub-goers. Miraculously, it stays clear of Eric Idle’s wink-wink nudge-nudge lech and other comic stereotypes, in favour of open-ended character studies.
For this reason, Same Again doesn’t quite amount to play - although I’m not sure it tries to. Instead Burnand has created a milieu of sketches about the pub as ‘a corner stone of community’. In 2022 UK pub closures came close to reaching the highest level in ten years. A gag about pubs as cultural institutions, like they’re a site of significance for an archaeological dig, rings true. The show’s easy humour conceals its substance.
As to which community it refers to exactly, we’re left to wonder. Perhaps deliberately. For all its talk of young service industry staff with degrees, drinkers’ proximity to wealth, and the state of the the labour market (‘the beauty of shit jobs is that you can always get another’), it’s clear we’re not roughing it at The Nag's Head with Del Boy and Trigger. Or maybe we are, just a decade and some gentrification later. The Trotter’s local is set somewhere in Peckham. I don’t imagine they’d recognise it today.
But don’t sweat it! Ignore the bigger picture, we’re told. After all, that’s what you do when you go to the pub. This is a story about the locals’ local, about detail. You can’t see humanity from space, says one barstool philosopher, who says they’re left cold by photos of the Earth in orbit. But no one’s really buying it.
Same Again is a fantastically witty show, far better than most fringe productions. Like a parlour game, the cup and ball trick perhaps, there’s some sleight of hand going on with the themes. Half-empty pint glasses are ferried across the stage, and no sooner have we caught sight of what’s going on, the positions have changed.
Burnand is no doubt a talented writer, but it wouldn’t go amiss for him to show his hand once in a while.
Same Again is on at the Golden Goose Theatre from 21-22 February 2023. For more information, visit Donkey Tail Productions.