Champ[author-post-rating] (3/5 stars)

The three bears are having a bad day. A bad 27 days in fact – that’s how far they are through their punishing run as children’s entertainers in a dead-end shopping mall. Their dressing room looks like the utility room of some basement-flat in Hell and, despite being grown men, they now find themselves terrorised by the spawn of Satan, although he’s actually just an inventively nasty child called Rodney. The down-on-their-luck actors (Nicholas Pauling, Oliver Booth and Pierre Malherbe) have been forced into a vague approximation of friendship, which is mostly just the admirable restraint of complete disdain. Cooped up and hacked off, they’re deeply dissatisfied and way past the point of camaraderie,  aggressively egging each other on with disastrous results after the tiny tear-away pushes them to the limits of their sanity.

Champ opens with such brazen confidence that it really seems to have everything going for it – unashamedly filthy, funny, fast, outrageous with a little bit of poignancy thrown in for good measure. Five minutes into the show and I was planning to rave about Champ, I really was. I liked the silly bear suits and the merciless quick-fire of tasteless but still wickedly funny jokes, so unapologetically inappropriate I found myself laughing then immediately clapping my hand over my mouth in case more sensitive spectators thought me a disgrace to society.

There are some spot-on observations on the complexities of quasi-homoerotic banter and the old ‘artistic merit or actual money’ conundrum. Louis Viljoen’s script is, for the most part, sharp and speedy, brutally simple gags complemented by near-poetic extravagances. There’s also a really enjoyable digression about Liev Schreiber. The trio offer tirelessly energetic and genuinely masterly performances. Pauling in particular shines as the world-weary Elliot, forced to shelve his ideals in return for a half-way decent pay cheque. By far the most psychologically-nuanced character, Elliot’s trademark embittered wit is slightly softened by that endearing hint of melancholy, Pauling’s less boisterous delivery is best utilised in a marvelously underplayed conversation with his useless agent.

Call me impossible to please (and I probably have been called that) but I can’t help but feel that no matter how exuberant and dedicated the central performances are, there’s really only so much worthy material you can peddle out of an initially amusing but ultimately thin narrative. After its blistering start, Champ quickly loses steam – there’s just nowhere else to go. Yes, we all know it’s soul-butchering to be a jobbing actor, underpaid and overworked, urinated on by children and verbally excreted upon by your superiors. “You’ll never be Hamlet,”  Melvin cruelly informs Elliot, and in that moment, you see his heart break and it actually hurts. Don’t get me wrong, I can happily laugh at puerile comedy when it’s pitched just right, as it is for most of Champs, and the final meltdown into total farce is understandable as a device for concluding the show. I just want something a bit more substantial, a little fresher than that the actors really hate children, bear suits, each other and pretty much everything else… because it sort of stops being that funny after a while. Too much to ask? From Champ, maybe.

Champ is playing at Assembly Roxy as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets, please see the Edinburgh Fringe website.