There's something in the acting zeitgeist lately, especially when it comes to actor training. On the one hand you have the hugely enjoyable The Kominsky Method charming Netflix, and on the other you have Wicker Socks equally charming, if not quite as well balanced, “Bolstoff” charming Smock Alley. Or “Bolstoff: A Modern Actor’s Introduction To Advanced Contemporary Performance,” to give it its full title. In an hour long workshop designed around the esoteric and understandably forgotten teachings of Hungarian acting teacher Nikolai Bolstoff, the king of bad acting and author of the forgotten classic The Albatross makes his pretentious presence felt. Funny, often clever, linking simple comic ideas, “Bolstoff's” in-house humour will appeal more to those who do the acting than to those who don’t. Yet even if its promising comic stylings have a little way to go before winning everyone over, there's a good chance you're going to be immediately won over by its three delightful comedians.
Following an unnecessary voice-over which sets the tone and pace for what's to follow, the comic trio of Fionn Foley, Michael-David McKernan and Ronan Carey take to the stage to facilitate one of the best worst acting workshops ever. It's all there, everything you’ll ever need, from performance preparation to character development, learning accents to Hungarian pantomime characters. Pretensions loom large as Bolstoff’s trio of devotees set out to illuminate and educate, suffering minor interruptions for Tinsel Time and phone calls from Fionn Foley’s mother. Director Hannah Mamalis keeps everything moving at an unwavering steady pace, too unwavering at times, using some wonderful contemporary dances between transitions. Shane Gill's simple lighting design, along with Fionn Foley's perfectly executed sound design, add some much needed texture in places.
While there’s much to enjoy in “Bolstoff,” including some clever writing, exquisite comic timing and super smart gags, ultimately it plays like an in-joke for those in the acting game. A situation compounded by it relying solely on the one idea which is milked for all its worth. For if it plays with slim variations on a theme, it’s always the same, unvaried theme it returns to: bad acting. Soon everything becomes trapped within this narrow, self-referential orbit which hasn't sufficient comic chops, or diversity, to keep it engaging for the duration of a show. Without doubt it pokes fun wonderfully well on occasion, with an amazingly funny improvised scene and a terrific lesson on accents showing just what these guys are capable of. Other scenes, however, are a little lacklustre, such as a 'walking a mile in your shoes' gag that stops prematurely rather than getting brought properly home. Indeed, jokes halting abruptly seems to be a continual issue in "Bolstoff" which suffers missed opportunities for getting stuck in the same groove.
Such as a potentially brilliant boy band sequence poking fun at Band-Aid which falls flat because it insists on referring to ideas that have already overplayed their hand. A trait seen, for example, in recurring references to Bolstoff's The Albatross, which might have opened interesting comedic possibilities instead of constantly resurfacing like an actor’s tick. And layered comedy is something these guy are capable of doing, with Carey’s ongoing gag about an ex-girlfriend being brilliantly exploited and woven throughout, enlivening scenes and giving Carey a lot more meat to play with, helping to establish him strongly on stage. Yet it risks, at times, the others looking like two straight men to Carey’s comedian for not having similarly developed personas or side stories. Yet McKernan and Foley do more than enough keep themselves funny and engaging, even if it's sometimes the case of enjoying the personality of the performers more than what’s being performed. Which often raises a chuckle or two, as well as some laugh out loud moments, especially if you’re in the acting know.
With "Bolstoff" it's impossible not to see shared similarities with Foil, Arms and Hog, whose clean cut, comic stylings are very much echoed here. Yet where the YouTube maestros know how to mix it up “Bolstoff” gets stuck in a self referential loop which it seems afraid to break out of, feeling like a sketch being stretched into a show at times for lack of variety or development. Yet with a bit of tweaking there’s a show here that could well appeal to everyone. Right now it preaches primarily to the converted, and even there could preach a little smarter and funnier in places. Yet, with “Bolstoff,” Foley, Carey, and McKernan show they have the chemistry, and the comedy, to really go places. When they hit their moments you know you’re watching something interesting being given birth to on stage. They might have a little way to go before they can really stand on their own six feet, but on the evidence off “Bolstoff” a betting man wouldn’t gamble against Foley, Carey, and McKernan hitting the comedy heights.
“Bolstoff” by Wicker Socks (Fionn Foley, Michael-David McKernan and Ronan Carey) runs at Smock Alley until December 15.
For more information, visit Smock Alley Theatre