Fans of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s twisty anthology series Inside Number 9 will find much to delight in in The Half, Danielle Ward’s acerbic, macabre new play about a former comedy duo turned nemeses.
Anderson (Anna Crilly) and West (Margaret Cabourn-Smith) were big on the comedy circuit in the 90s, but their partnership came a cropper when West was lured to the bright lights of an American sitcom, forsaking Anderson to comparative obscurity in the process. Ten years later, sitcom long since cancelled, the pair is reunited at a charity gala to perform an extract from Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Readying themselves for the stage, they spit recriminations and invective at each other with scalpel-sharp wit, picking on one another’s insecurities with the precision that only comes from true former love.
The Half deals with some hoary tropes: showbusiness rivalry, fame fading with age, and feminine desperation in the face of waning public interest. But it chews those tropes up and reconstitutes them as something bitterly self-aware and shot through with pitch black humour. It’s no coincidence they’re readying themselves to take on the role of the two most famous duelling starlets in celluloid history – The Half is all too aware that showbiz still isn’t too interested in what roles women can fill beyond cat-fighting bitches.
The barbed banter gives way to darker revelations, and The Half gracefully transmutes into something altogether more troubling, as sexual assault, substance abuse and parental neglect come the fore. The scant run-time – 55 minutes – unfortunately means these lofty issues suffer from somewhat perfunctory treatment, but then it also gives a sense of what a heady melange of nastiness it is to work in the entertainment industry. Crilly and Cabourn-Smith’s performances are consistently excellent, handling the shift from backstage comedy to tragedy with aplomb. Crilly’s fragility, in particular, is masterfully portrayed, a mess of desperation and self-loathing.
For something that starts as a witty confection, The Half’s tragedy will sit heavy with you afterwards.