Good comedy is all about timing. Like the bubbly trills in the opening ‘60s-inspired jazz music of Cocktails at Pam’s, it’s about maintaining a steady beat. Set-ups, punch lines, even looks to engage the audience —they all have to come at the right moment. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
This is the 30th anniversary of Teatro La Quindicina’s Cocktails at Pam’s, which premiered at the fifth Fringe Festival. For those who remember previous iterations of the play or the lively ambience of the swingin’ ‘60s, nostalgia might shield you from some of its shortcomings. The rest of us don’t have that luxury.
The title character is quintessential ‘housewife’ of the era, Pam Cochrane (Davina Stewart). Obsessed with performing the role of perfect cocktail party hostess, she’s taking her husband Julius (Jeff Haslam) along for the ride. The rest of the cast is made up of the couple’s nervous maid Rita (Beth Graham) and their guests.
First to arrive at the party is Cynthia Dallas (Julie Orton). The character is a young actress starring as Cordelia in King Lear at the Stratford Festival. After Cynthia’s arrival, comes her love interest, Pam’s brother Leon (Andrew MacDonald-Smith). Followed by a series of pairs: Virgil and Sara Black (Mark Bellamy and Leona Brausen respectively), Max and Denise Powell (Julien Arnold and Andrea House), and Lily Johnson (Mari Chartier) accompanied by her friend, Estelle Washington (Barbara Gates Wilson). With barely any plot to speak of (a game of charades here and some canapés there), the only structure left to cling to comes from the steady disintegration of Pam’s not so thick veneer of calm.
Designed by Chantel Fortin, the set pieces and props are reminiscent of classic ‘60s sitcoms such as I Dream of Jeannie or Bewitched, and pitch perfect for the setting. That being said, like those TV shows, there doesn’t seem to be much going on beneath the surface. Colourful cocktails and costumes brighten up the stage, but can’t possibly mask such bizarre and senseless bits as a tediously long, wild-eyed outburst from Estelle. It seems she’s outraged by the depraved enjoyment of green pepper by the general public. This eruption foreshadows a much longer one that comes when the extent of Pam’s mental decline reveals itself, resulting in a supposedly humorous breakdown.
There is a clever bit of irony in the play when Virgil (dressed all in stylish black and wearing thick, round glasses) explains to Cynthia the ‘proper’ interpretation of her character’s motives in King Lear. When Cynthia asks if he works in the same business as her, Bellamy’s answering deadpan expression is spot on: “I work in the civil service.” However, it’s all but lost in the midst of slapstick antics like the maid’s awkward mishaps and Virgil and Sara’s pantomimed make-out sessions. Together with a handful of half-hearted laughs, it’s not enough to elevate Cocktails at Pam’s above a middling performance. With its seemingly random dialogue and haphazard gags, it never comes together to establish a comedic tempo that rivals that of a sparkling, ‘60s number.
Until Sat, Jul 30
Directed by Stewart Lemoine
The Varscona Theatre, $29+