Review: People Show 137: God Knows How Many, Southwark Playhouse

A café stands stage left with a puppet sitting on one of its bar stools. The café is rustic and full of copper coloured items, postcards and pot plants. 

A puppet with feathery multicoloured hair and large eyes open her mouth and begins to sing Charles Trenet’s classic ‘La Mer’.

An early scene between Mark Long and Emil Wolk sets the tone for this absurdist comedy. Long portrays a Parisienne coffee shop owner clothed in a stereotypical maid outfit and dusting off the café’s sole croissant calling it ‘la croissant de la jour’ – a clear satire on the pretentious artisan coffee shop that is common to Paris, and is equally familiar in London. What would Emil like to drink? ‘Un café noir’; he scoffs at the offer of ‘Café au Lait’ as at these artisan cafés one does not have milk for it supposedly spoils the coffee. 

The actual coffee’s creation is increasingly mocking with the machine viciously spraying the drink into an espresso cup but also coating the back of Emil’s head and neck in the process.

The first half of the piece is either silent or in French and is reminiscent of black and white French comedies that I occasionally watched as a child. This seemingly deliberate homage is good fun and adds a further layer to the comedy as it becomes more disruptive and absurd for the audience. 

A later hilarious moment comes from the comedy trope of tuneless/ out of time instrument use. Both Long and Wolk play brass instruments to various pieces, but the most amusing is The Can-Can. Long and Wolk sit inside a theatre box and as they play The Can-Can is performed by various metal legs hitting hard against the floor above them and causing tremendous amounts of dust to fall into their instruments – causing a less than pleasant sound to emerge. George Khan (playing beautifully) dismisses these two idiots from his group after their causing quite the racket. 

My favourite section comes when Emil recites Bottom as Pyramus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Emil performs Pyramus’s death scene stabbing himself whilst saying ‘thus die I, thus, thus, thus’ with extreme emphasis and longevity for each individual ‘thus’. This is where the overlap between the character of Emil in the play and Emil himself occurs. Wolk is seemingly commenting on his own aging and the passing of time towards the end of momentary life through reviving a character he portrayed 36 years ago in Leicester alongside Mark Long as Quince. Pyramus’s theatrical death here mirrors the death of Emil’s character in the play, but also perhaps envisages Wolk’s in the future.

A recurring image of a telephone ringing only for Long’s character to be hung up on almost instantaneously soon becomes a phone ringing into nothingness – the fateful sound of no connection fills the space. 

A piece of affection for friendships current and past. An exploration of aging. A portrayal of the now. 

People Show with over 50 years of eccentricity, humour and camaraderie take on the passing of time and do it in an absurdly comical and reflective style.

People Show 137 is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 29 February. For more information and tickets visit the Southward Playhouse website.