REVIEW: Pity Laughs
Shockingly intimate, brilliantly crafted, whole heartedly funny
The gasps of shock began as the audience entered the auditorium.
Unusually for an hour of stand up, the stage was populated with props. And by props, I mean cardboard cut outs of gravestones, ivy, and a ‘fountain of tears’ with Mark Bittlestone’s face stuck to the top. He later quipped, ‘We used PVA glue and now it just looks like someone came on my face.’
However, it would’ve been highly unlikely for any member of the audience to not know what they were in for. The tag line of the show reads ‘In 2014 Mark Bittlestone came out as gay. As if being an orphan wasn’t funny enough!’ This frank statement encompasses the two main topics of the show, in a bold and unapologetic manner that is maintained in the performance. At the beginning of the show, Mark explains he wants to show the ways in which these two profoundly personal aspects of his life can be funny – ‘because if you can’t laugh, what can you do?’
The innovative sense of merging theatricality (for example, the use of spoof X factor ‘sob story’ videos) and comedy no doubt helped the audience to stay highly engaged throughout – a common critique of stand up is that it was, or felt, ’a little on the long side’ and this did not seem to be even the slightest danger for Mark. This is not to attribute this all to the backdrop or creative interludes of the show: the most important aspect in the overwhelming audience enjoyment was no doubt Mark himself.
Mark’s tone was wholly unique – a cocktail of natural, intimate conversations and more crafted, storyteller moments. He oscillated smoothly between the two, and slipped into the latter when discussing stories to do with his sexuality, acerbically mocking the idea that people always want to hear ‘the coming out story’, and always want to know how hard it was. Whilst being a standalone entertaining piece of writing, this also had the effect of emphasising that being gay, or coming out, is not an anecdote or crafted narrative- it is a very crucial, and important, part of someone’s life.
This made his conversational tone all the more effective, a tone used to divulge the heartrending circumstances of the death of Mark’s parents. Although jokes about this elicited the most horrified laughs, it was these moments in which the audience were most fully invested, and behind Mark. He made it feel like a privilege to be a member of the audience and to learn about something so personal in such a public medium.
I struggle to believe you will ever see anyone also deliver deadpan more effectively than Mark – especially when the punchline is a topic so intense as the death of parents or coming to terms with sexuality. Or both. Yet this was not an alienating deadpan, but rather one that somehow felt warm – aided by Mark’s clear innate ability to respond to the audience, often creating spontaneous jokes that snowballed off the audience’s reaction to a previous punchline.
Mark made it very clear in the show that he doesn’t care what people think of him, and this train of logic perhaps means he won’t care much about what reviews have to say of his show.
However, Pity Laughs doesn’t do what it says on the tin. The laughs are not out of pity, but out of whole-hearted enjoyment and appreciation of the brilliantly crafted, shocking and intimate comedy Bittlestone produced.