views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Desperately Seeking The Exit
Leicester Square Theatre
30th April 2013


Peter Michael Marino

Photography supplied by AMBA Associates

In his superlative book Adventures in the Screen Trade, writer William Goldman recounts a low point in his career when he's refused entry to the premiere of a film he wrote. It's one in a long line of humiliating, humbling and downright disrespectful situations he had to endure being a lowly screenplay writer. He'd no doubt find himself in good company with Peter Michael Marino, writer of the spectacular Broadway flop Desperately Seeking Susan, who was told that - as a writer - he was at the bottom of the show's totem pole. Seems like Hollywood and Broadway operate on very similar lines.

It also appears that, in all of his time getting stoned (which, in turn, inspired his musical based on Blondie tracks) Marino never bothered to read Goldman's words or get wind of the hundreds upon hundreds of disaffected screenwriters and playwrights who see their dreams get shattered in front of them. But, purely selfishly, I'm glad he didn't. For without his enthusiasm for what's admittedly a decent concept and his theatrical disaster, we'd never see him pick it apart in such honest, warm, self-deprecating detail in Desperately Seeking the Exit.

The show begins with a short VT about Marino's doomed project, including interviews with the cast and clips from the musical itself. It gives us an insight into the horror and unintentional hilarity of the final product - a rendition of Hanging on the Telephone being particularly cringe-inducing. When being questioned, the cast trot out the standard, rehearsed lines proclaiming the work to be a masterpiece, but while dead behind the eyes. It's a low-key way to begin such an exuberant piece, but it's undoubtedly effective if a touch overlong and blighted by the minor tech problem of the sound and images not quite synching.

The energy immediately lifts when Marino himself takes to the stage in Union Flag glasses and a Godzilla T-shirt, clutching a bottle of Magners like some camp tourist barroom raconteur. Marino introduces himself in a knowingly awful British accent. He later tries out a Japanese accent with the same amount of success, but stripped of any malice and thrown into this stream-of-consciousness, he gets away with it all. In fact, it almost becomes endearing as he casts himself as the underdog, the ramshackle writer of a ramshackle musical telling the tale in an equally ramshackle way. Like Jerry Sadowitz, he punches up.

So begins the story of the rise and fall of Desperately Seeking Susan. I won't spoil any of it, suffice to say it fits the format of the narrative stand-up made most popular by the likes of Dave Gorman, Danny Wallace or Tony Hawks - the plan, the first setback, the glimmer of hope, the crushing failure and the upbeat ending. It's testament to Marino's skill, though, that it's affecting, moving and incredibly engaging even when it's not laugh-out-loud funny.

The comedy, which hinges on the fish-out-of-water conceit of Marino loving but not really "getting" England, features a lot of the traditional comic staple of "pointing out differences". Still, his original, camp and sideways spin on this manages to keep what in other hands could be hack material fresh and funny. A brief piece on US sweets is very nice. His narrative is also aided by some great physicality. Marino and director John Clancy have crafted simple but affectionate portrayals of those who stood in his way, from director Angus to a "sweet little understudy girl" that Marino switches in and out of - sometimes smoothly, sometimes clumsily, but always with an eye on getting the laughs. The little things in his delivery, such as knowing exactly when to take a swig from his drink to heighten the comedy, as a reaction or simply to regain his thoughts.

Granted, that doesn't always work. His train of thought is derailed a couple of times and he needs to ask the tech for a cue. But it's this haphazard style that lends real heart to proceedings and levels the playing field between comedian and audience, highlighting his failure as something to be laughed about - which is, after all, the entire point of this show.

Despite his many ups and downs, it's staggering how positive a situation he's made out of it. It could have been all too easy to craft this show around the bitchy, gay stereotype and use it as an excuse to vent and rant. Marino, instead, uses it to make peace, lampooning but never blaming anyone for the dismal mess that sprang from his dream. It makes for a much more human story that we can relate to, and was a wise choice.

Whether it's in the publicity (for press night, he was claiming it was "Pete vs the London Press - Round 2"), the writing or the delivery, there's an overwhelming sense of good humour that means it's almost impossible to dislike. I'm not going to end the review with some pithy line based around the title of the show or a Blondie song, like the other reviewers did not-so-many moons ago, that would be disingenuous. What I will say, though, is that the writing and performance here entirely vindicates Marino. It's a bright, whimsical and frequently hilarious tour-de-force of total and complete failure.

Desperately Seeking The Exit ran from 24th April to 20th May 2013 at Leicester Square Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Northern, Piccadilly)

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