Written by Katie Mulgrew
Directed by Robert Farquhar
Cast: Gemma Banks (Nell), Eithne Browne (Jan), Alice Bunker-Whitney (Lauren), Danny Burns (Leslie), Eva McKenna (Jess), Joel Parry (Mark)
Margaret Thatcher’s rubbery face is lying on Lauren’s floor, freshly liberated from the inside of a gangster’s trousers. Which in its own way encapsulates a great deal about this fresh and consistently funny new farce by Katie Mulgrew, presented by Liverpool’s Unity Theatre in association with that city’s Royal Court.
Omnibus pays its dues to the best traditions of the genre: it’s full of unlikely situations, wild coincidences and exaggerated characters. But sexism and tired, middle class sensibilities are out, replaced by warm and inclusive intelligence plus an infectious streak of big-kid naughtiness. The characters are still rooted in truth. There’s a massive difference between a predictable plot and one you can gleefully anticipate, besides which this play throws out plenty of surprises.
When the lights go up, Alfie Heywood’s detailed set is a study in inner suburban dreariness. Twentysomethings Nell, Mark and Lauren are slumped in front of an afternoon omnibus of EastEnders. The device of hearing (specially invented) soapy dialogue from it at key points in the play works really well, often reflecting what’s happening to the characters. Or presaging what’s about to happen. Whoever provided the voices knows exactly how to squeeze the most comedy out of the overwrought soap plots and phrases. And the seconds leading up to the interval are perfect.
The house belongs to Lauren, who’s bingeing on wine and tranquilisers because it’s a year since she was jilted at the altar. She shares it with Mark, a placid security guard and his best friend Nell. Mark’s latest girlfriend Jess is also angling to move in and cooking an elaborate meal as leverage. She’s a monstrous and manipulative womanchild but just when it seems that her histrionics will be the only disruption to this uneventful Sunday, a desperate stranger arrives at the house with a mysterious holdall, a gender neutral name and a loaded gun…
From here, things get increasingly complicated, amusing and weird. The improbabilities and deceptions escalate. The fact that it’s all rooted in believable mundanity is funny in itself, and it’s a joy to see so much of the plotting driven by Mulgrew’s thoughtfully drawn characters.
Lauren is a masterclass in pathetic, resentful inebriety from Alice Bunker-Whitney. Full of surprises, she doles out devastating truths at inopportune moments like a woozy Oracle and tries to use Monster Munch as a means of seduction. As the put-upon Mark, Joel Parry has a great and endearing line in haplessness. It’s so funny to watch his understanding of the world ebb away as every passing minute seems to throw up some new question or head-scratching revelation.
Nell is our touchstone, the pillar of common sense that a farce like this needs. Fortunately she’s also a pillar of withering sarcasm with a story of her own that gets the audience cheering towards the end of the play. It’s a lovely performance by Gemma Banks, loaded with tenderness and wit as well as endless generosity in letting more extreme characters hog the attention.
These include the hilarious Eithne Browne as her garrulous Scouse mother, forever bursting in when it’s most inconvenient with knock-off meat, unwanted advice and rambling, tipsy reminiscences. Browne’s timing is magnificent. Eva McKenna, playing Jess, is another scene stealer. Whether she’s pouting, babytalking or spitting out threatening Malapropisms she always keeps the character that vital fraction to the right side of believable. At one point when, in desperation, the other characters tie her to a chair with Christmas tinsel, her expressions of shock and spoilt fury bring the house down. It’s no wonder that Leslie, a lanky, ratlike ‘gangster’ with all the brooding menace of a marshmallow flump, is driven to wailing “YOU’RE NOT NORMAL HOSTAGES!” at these people in a pained moment of supreme exasperation.
Leslie is Mulgrew’s standout creation. At first he seems like a gormless comic archetype (Danny Burns gives very good gormless) but he turns out to be a character full of pathos and idiosyncratic insights. Burns plays him with a tragic and punctured nobility that’s almost mesmerising and, when Leslie has to pretend to be someone else, gives him a bizarre humorous accent that’s impossible to describe.
He’s a surprising and brilliantly original character, a description which applies equally to Omnibus as a whole. It’s that rare treasure: a farce which doesn’t take a cynical view of the world, aimed at the under-70s. Instead (and in spite of one or two clumsy moments) it feels tender, fresh and spectacularly funny.