Like many people, I enjoy a good comic book and have certainly enjoyed the recent Batman and Avengers films. I’m not someone who has hoarded comics for years or has much knowledge of the origins of superheroes, but I was in the right place to be educated. The Sigil Club present a whistle-stop tour of how comics were created, overcame adversity in the face of censorship and were reinvented to appeal to us today.
Michael Eckett has written a concise, albeit still verbose history which skips along through the salient moments at one heck of a speed. Following the style of productions like the Reduced Shakespeare Company and Horrible Histories, this four-strong team of performers work slickly together to impart all they can within the hour they have. Part sketch show, part docu-comedy, there is clearly a lot of passion for the subject, given the sheer volume of knowledge within it. Eckett has crafted a strong narrative with good use of puns, visual gags and self-aware humour. As one of the performers, he is full of nervous energy and seems ready to burst at any moment with anecdotes and caricatured super-villains.
As director, Eckett has blended a variety of styles to keep the content interesting. Highlights include the Fantastic Four Family Fortunes and the moment a young writer meets his publishers. In a slick routine, the editors want to make only a small change to the script: “as small as Rhianna’s acting career”. Of course, like the Orange adverts at the cinema, this change is fundamental and the ideas and throw-away references are nicely observed. The censorship puppet show is also a great example of Eckett’s research and comic timing and a poetic rap from Batman (Daniel Farley) is both excellently penned and performed. Among a plethora of roles, Farley plays the generic comic-book hero who must keep up with the ever-changing requirements of his genre. His one-liners and Buzz Lightyear simplicity are perfect for the role. Later on, his gruff Christian-Bale-Batman voice captures the noir-hero persona. Making up the fantastic four, Kris Wood and Kate Quinn make full use of their respectively large and petite statures to comic effect. Wood has great comic timing and Quinn makes an excellently moody Spiderman. The lighting and stage management add to the strong team spirit in supporting the frenetic pace.
Beyond mere silliness and the expression of every young boy’s desire to dress up in superhero outfits, there is a message here. Eckett explains that with the evolution of technology and the accessibility of media and publishing, anybody can get their own ideas out to people and create their own comic stories. This is a nicely sombre moment amid the farcical to-ing and fro-ing, demonstrating his skill in both direction and writing.
There are some rough edges. One or two of the gags fell a little flat and both Eckett and Wood delivered a couple of lines at a pace too frantic for either the audience or themselves to keep up with. The individual performances, with suitably hammed-up characters, are unlikely to win any Olivier awards, but within the style of the show, this really didn’t matter. I felt some of the pace flustered a little in the closing scenes and, with what felt like 40-degree heat in the Etcetera auditorium, that is understandable. However, even with the whole show replayed and condensed to a minute at the ending, I felt there wasn’t as much punch as there was at the opening. These are, however, minor concerns which detract little from the overall experience.
Aside from the energy and subject knowledge, what impressed me the most was how well all four performers worked together. There are several scenes where dialogue is fluidly shared between them, showing considerable rehearsal, intelligent direction and adept delivery. There is enough detail for ardent fans of comics from the Platinum Age through to the present day but enough general information and humour for people who have never even heard of Marvel or DC. This material is best suited to the fringe stage and, with a little more polish and confidence in the delivery, it has the potential for a long and successful future as a fringe favourite.