thu 30/05/2024

Banging Denmark, Finborough Theatre review - lively but confusing comedy of modern manners | reviews, news & interviews

Banging Denmark, Finborough Theatre review - lively but confusing comedy of modern manners

Banging Denmark, Finborough Theatre review - lively but confusing comedy of modern manners

Superb cast deliver Van Badham's anti-incel barbs and feminist wit with gusto

Dewey-eyed?: Tom Kay and Maja SimonsenAli Wright

What would happen if a notorious misogynist actually fell in love? With a glacial Danish librarian? And decided his best means of getting this woman’s attention was to ask his worst enemy, a leading feminist academic, for help?

These probably aren’t questions most people would prioritise, but the Australian playwright Van Badham did and then fashioned her answers into a satirical comedy, Banging Denmark. It fills the little Finborough space very adequately, though it recedes in the memory somewhat once its excellent cast have taken a bow.

The piece opens with a young man at home in his underwear and talking to his computer, which talks back. He’s a podcast host called Guy De Witt (Tom Kay), whose gimmick is that he represents the “seduction community”; his caller is Bob, who is reporting that he has used PUA (pick-up artist) techniques to seduce a woman and now feels great – it was better than playing a combat game! When Guy tells Bob he is currently on his yacht, though, it is instantly clear he is not what he says he is; indeed, Guy’s real name is Jake Newhouse, he is an affluent management consuiltant and his incel stance may be just a money-making pose, trading on his unlikeability. 

As Guy, Jake champions the degradation of women even as he instructs men in how to have sex with them and then walk away. “Santa Claus is coming!” is the slogan of his podcast, ho, ho, ho, punctuated with bursts of Orff’s Carmina Burana. But Jake has met his match in Anne (Maja Simonsen), whose chilly manner has really turned him on. In fantasy scenes at her librarian desk, we see her treating him as the idiot he is.

Jodie Tyack and James Jip in Banging DenmarkOn the opposite side of the stage, behind another door, is a pile of old clothes, which turns out to be the hiding place of Ishtar Madigan (Rebecca Blackstone), a gender studies lecturer whose special subject is computer games. She is literally hiding, in this case from the incel trolls who have been attacking her since De Witt sued her for defamation, and won. Penniless, she now lives in the college photocopier room, aided by a former student who has since gained a PhD, Dr Denyse Kim (Jodie Tyack, pictured above with James Jip). Denyse has a strong platonic friendship with Jip's Toby but is not sure about his “moonish” face.

Ishtar is Jake’s chosen ambassador to play Cyrano with Anne, for which he offers her a sum beyond her wildest dreams – it is probably her money anyway, paid to DeWitt in settlement of her lawsuit, but she doesn’t know this. Her role is to make Jake likeable, but, like Cyrano, she doesn’t entirely stay neutral in this mission. It’s a hard row to hoe promoting a man who sees social democracy as practised by the Danes as a “bitch-shield”. As the B-word is his stock in trade, Anne the democratic Dane is highly unlikely to accept him on any level. As it happens, she has other fish to fry anyway.

This quintet then plays partnering games, in a dizzying round of different permutations. Badham uses these twists to show the many reasons that impel people to have sex with each other – not just PUA techniques, but good old loneliness and too much to drink. 

It’s here that the play’s thematics become a little fuzzy. In this era of negging, slut-shaming and all the other perils of living online, the characters all still default to sex when it suits them (except poor Toby, pining for Denyse). The unexpected seduction is a staple of farce. But in this context, when even these educated women treat sex as little more than a physical urge, a commodity they consume as they need to, aren't they making the incels' case for them? Seduction becomes a mere game for the playwright too, one she can subject her characters to in the name of farcical comedy. Until the very end, that is, when Badham opts to send the audience home with a cheerier message suggesting a more humane future for life on Earth. 

It’s down to the fine cast, under snappy direction from Sally Woodcock, to keep things nicely buoyant. They really take the script and run with it, Blackstone in particular, who is a very able clown and verbal technician. And the script gives them ample scope for their virtuosity, full of strong conceits and witty barbs (I especially liked women’s self-defence being called “suffragitsu”). Its comic moments are superbly delivered, but as a comedy of modern manners its aims are too various and complicated to land really big punches.

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