Two authors, both alike in dignity, are in the running for a prestigious literary prize. They’re educated, well-spoken, impeccably well-informed… and they simply can’t stand each other. Billed as a “war of the words”, Shortlist is a dialogue-rich and unashamedly intelligent comedy, which packs in the zingers while exploring a relationship that proves more nuanced than it seems.
As they encounter each other at panel discussions and cocktail parties leading up to the award, the combative pair can’t hold their tongues – but seemingly can’t tear themselves apart, either. They trade childish names and Wildean barbs, swap extravagant insults and coarse innuendo. At times it gets gloriously geeky and at times, it borders on the surreal. We know in our hearts that they’re stooping embarrassingly low, but the effect is hilariously cathartic, a quick-fire fusillade of all the insults you’ve ever felt too mannerly to lob.
And then, just when the humour is at risk of wearing thin, the bombast fades and the authors’ inner uncertainty begins to show through. Their enmity’s born of deep-seated insecurity and – as a furtive mission throws them unexpectedly together – they tentatively bond over a common fear. There are two things, it seems, they can readily agree on: that they’re in the spiritual presence of their country’s greatest author, and that neither of them can ever hope to be her equal.
Brian Parks’ fast-paced script is filled with one-liners, but there’s an ocean of depth to it too: I especially enjoyed how the two authors’ discourse occasionally lapses into their respective literary styles. Playing the more highbrow of the writers, Matthew Boston is subtly washed-up and convincingly desperate, while Daniel Llewelyn-Williams as the crowd-pleasing novelist is deliciously superior yet brittle too. Both approach their parts with uncompromising verve, and enough physicality to leaven the densely-packed verbal exchange.
Occasionally it feels a little one-note – build up, belt out a punchline, repeat – and the large number of notably short scenes did grate on me after a while. But the pace and animation accelerate as the awards ceremony nears, and the conclusion’s quietly touching, as the two men grow exhausted by combat and reach a peace of a kind. Watching their jousting is a guilty pleasure, but it’s a pleasure all the same. This show belongs on anyone’s shortlist.