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Jumping the Sharks at the Smock Alley Theatre

Jumping The Shark is the moment when an established show changes in a significant manner in an attempt to stay fresh. Ironically, that moment makes the viewers realise that the show has finally run out of ideas. It has reached its peak, it will never be the same again, and from now on it’s all downhill.

tvtropes.org

Jumping the Sharks is a small, quirky play. Essentially a one-man one-act play following the triumph and decline of a Hollywood big shot as he waits in what must be limbo while outlining the seven core stories, it banks a lot on the central performance of Don Wycherley. Wycherley, an actor you might recognise from Perrier’s Bounty or Sweeney Todd, gives the play his all as former television executive and now dearly departed Nick Cross, managing to seem a convincing and charming conversationalist on a sparse stage. His delivery is truly impressive, inviting the audience to overlook some of the sleight of hand the play uses, and helping the hour breeze by.

Swimming with sharks...

The title alludes to that bit where things sudden got worse. “If you’re not on the way up,” Cross repeats, “you’re on the way down.” The moment you jump the shark is the apex of that particular bell curve, that moment on the roller coaster when it really seems you can’t get any higher… and then you fall, hard. The phrase has been part of popular lexicon since Happy Days, but it’s not necessarily the trendiest expression of the phenomenon. As of the summer of 2008, “nuked the fridge” has become a euphemism for that moment when things got a whole lot worse, though some would argue that “jumping the shark” refers to television and “nuking the fridge” refers to cinema – the latter itself a reference to an infamous scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. However, somehow I doubt that “nuking the fridges” would be quite as charming and catchy a title.

Pop culture semantics beside, the play is written for those with an interest in popular culture – Cross, the television producer, announces to the audience that he plays to “ruin your entertainment” by deconstructing every story we’ve ever heard. As he offers his own life story to the assembled audience – convinced that he can make us truly hate him, despite the fact that he is ultimately the hero of the tale (and, in his own words, is a figure “you can empathise with”) – he picks it apart with by fitting various moments and anecdotes from his own life, fitting them into Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots.

For those unfamiliar with Booker’s theory, the core idea is that every work of fiction can be reduced down to one of seven archetypes – no matter how original a movie or show may seem, it’s ultimately just a slight variation on a model that was built nearly at the dawn of man. It’s an interesting idea to structure one man’s life around these seven basic plots, but I’m not overly convinced that the script by Michael Lovett really follows through on its deconstruction. Not withstanding the fact that Booker’s work is hotly contested, Lovett never really explains why the fact that fiction can be reduced down to seven core plots is a bad thing – after all, surely he only serves to demonstrate that these are relevant, as they reflect his protagonist’s own life story? After all, how can these stories be pointless if they ultimately reflect on life?

Shining a light on Cross' failings...

Still, the play itself is consistently entertaining. I can’t be the only person thinking of the saga of The Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin as I watched Cross. Cross is introduced to us over telephone, talking in a thick New York accent which for some reason reminds me of Dennis Hopper, snorting coke and boasting about it on a 911 call. Cross assures a hooker that his cocaine arrest couldn’t possibly harm his career, perhaps a reflection on the way that Sorkin was able to continue working even after his own arrest for drug possession. Although Cross is somewhat crasser than most Sorkin protagonists, there is something in the way that he talks and trades little anecdotes that reminds me of Sorkin – that and the fact that he’s constantly walking and talking.

The sparse set design and wonderful lighting and sound make efficient use of the small theatre space – although Wycherley is the anchor, the show drips with professionalism. Dressed in a shrewd suit and speaking in a convincing New York accent, Wycherley spins you a life story packed with improbable and almost impossible moments – from crashing Live Aid to meeting an old neighbour in the most unlikely place – and yet you buy what he’s selling. Wycherley brings a sense of a snake oil salesman to the lead role, filling in the blanks in the script. You never find out, for example, how an uneducated drug user can make himself CEO in four years, but if anyone can do it, it’s Wycherley’s Cross.

Jumping the Sharks is a charming little play. It’s not perfect, but it’s a perfectly entertaining way to spend an evening. It’s not quite as profound as it might like to be, but – like its protagonist – you might find yourself enjoying its company perhaps a little more than you should. If you get a chance to check it out before it ends next week, give it a look.

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