The obvious place to start writing about a show like Aidan Fitzmaurice’s “Arachnophila” is with spider puns. They’re so tempting, (lures you into its web and fixes you there) they’re almost impossible to resist. But given that this might offend spiders its probably best to give it a miss. Herein lies the level of wacky, zany, quirky humour to be found in “Arachnophila,” which explores the relationships between a man and a woman, and a Spider-man and his Man-spider. Yet despite its clever premise “Arachnophila” often covers familiar ground. It might all feel like a student show in a university drama society, with many of the jokes preaching to the converted, but “Arachnophila” shows a deftness and charm that's often beguiling in this delightfully absurdist comedy.
From the get-go “Arachnophila” sets about cleverly subverting expectations, even if it means the rabbit gets killed in the process. All of which sets things up nicely for what is to follow in the tale of Alice and her boyfriend Conor, who buys her a Chilean rose tarantula to prepare her for her oncoming pregnancy. Not that Alice is pregnant, or even remembers them having a conversation about getting pregnant. Still, it never hurts to be prepared. With the arrival of the spider, named Bellhop (you’ll have to see the show to learn his secret spider name), and his Exoskeleton (her secret name too), Conor’s life begins to unravel. Alice leaves, Conor loses his job, wasps repeatedly sting young children and love ballads to a long suffering spider go unanswered. Until the spider shops secret is final revealed.
Throughout, “Arachnophila” makes some big absurdist asks and sells them nearly every time. Spiders talking with imaginary friends, or the fact that this couple went out together for five years, might strain credibility at the edges, but such simplicity is both “Arachnophila’s” strength and its limitation. Despite its quirky and clever premise, “Arachnophila” holds it all together for being built on simple and familiar building blocks rarely deviated from, or really developed. Its simplistic language, set-ups and gags, and endless referencing spider related trivia, are all milked for all their worth. Sometimes to terrific effect, as in a wonderful play on the idea of a spider sense, other times less successfully, as in a re-evaluation of the movie Arachnophobia. Similar simple building blocks are found when it comes to gender, which mirrors classic situation comedy man/woman relationships. In “Arachnophila's” universe, women are caring, rational beings befuddled and exasperated by their dumb male counterparts. A funny scenario. For a time. But with no deviation, or development, in either of the relationships, both can struggle to maintain interest for the duration of the show.
Thankfully a strong cast make what works well delightfully engagaing, as well as helping pick up the slack. Ian Dunphy’s showy Bellhop is a sheer delight, as is Harry Butler’s delusional and understated Conor, with both providing the lions share of the laughs. Ably assisted by an impressive Meg Healy showing exquisite timing playing the grounded, straight woman, Alice, the perfect comic foil for her hilarious boyfriend. As is a wonderfully captivating Caoimhe Mulcahy as the intelligent and manipulative Exoskeleton. Indeed, the easy chemistry between Mulcahy and Dunphy goes a long way to establishing “Arachnophila’s” cartoonish and childlike sensibility. A chemistry director Sarah Bradley cleverly exploits, if on other occasions her composition of bodies in Anna Orton’s cramped and awkward set leaves a little to be desired.
In both the human and spider worlds of “Arachnophila” men are idiots and women their long suffering, smarter counterparts. Which is as deep as “Arachnophila” goes when dealing with gender. Or anything for that matter. If it skirts up to saying something serious about class, society, or misappropriation of the culture of others, it’s only to poke playful fun at such notions and at itself. For “Arachnophila” is always about finding the laugh. It may not be as smart as it could have been, but it shows a lot of promise, and a fledgling company making an absurdly impressive start.
“Arachnophila” by Aidan Fitzmaurice, presented by Fancy Vegas Productions as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2018, runs at The New Theatre until September 21
For more information, visit The New Theatre or Dublin Fringe Festival 2018