Theatre review: James and Jamesy make … tea could use a little focus

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There is something oddly compelling about James and Jamesy make … tea, but they could use a little focus.

Using their weekly tea parties as the jumping off point, James and Jamesy (Aaron Malkin and Alastair Knowles) create two scenes over the 90 minute show that uses a mix of improvisation, audience participation and physical & sketch comedy.  In the first scene, the duo finds themselves serving tea on the front lines to members of the British army after receiving the go-ahead from a General, plucked from the audience.  In the second, tea takes a back seat to the story of a family portrait that goes tragically wrong.

Ask any actor and they’ll tell you improv is risky, but here Malkin and Knowles add an additional layer of danger to what they do by involving the audience to the extent they do.  While more traditional improv involves soliciting suggestions for scene elements from the audience, here the audience becomes active participants.  Fortunately last night the audience members pulled into action added to the scenes, but it isn’t difficult to imagine how the scenes could tank if that were not the case.

James and Jamesy make ... tea
Aaron Malkin and Alastair Knowles in James and Jamesy make … tea on stage at The China Cloud

But even with willing (and last night’s capable) audience members, there remains an inability to recognize when a good thing goes bad.  Don’t get me wrong, as Malkin and Knowles haven’t cornered this particular market, for even the professionals at SNL and TheatreSports sometimes don’t know when to stop.  With the addition of the audience as active participants it becomes increasingly important to be prepared for all eventualities, to control and develop the skills to help move the action to a logical end.  While it might sound like an oxymoron to think of improv as practiced, truly great improvisers spend countless hours honing their craft to make it look effortless.  While spontaneity can be exhilarating, spontaneity without a plan is a disaster waiting to happen.

Taking additional focus is the physical and sketch comedy bits.  Knowles is particularly wiry and isn’t above showing off his dexterity and Malkin gives us some old-fashioned mime at one point.  Problem is neither adds anything to the improvised stories.  Knowles’ odd movements seem wholly arbitrary and the windstorm mime from Malkin appears to be part of an entirely different show.  The “glue” holding the entire show together is the duo’s weekly tea parties, but much like Knowles’ physicality this too seems entirely arbitrary, although I suppose tea is as good a premise as any.

While you can’t help but admire the risks these two young comedians are willing to take, their lack of focus means they ultimately come up short (and long).

2 1/2 of 5 Stars James & Jamesy make … tea

Written and performed by Aaron Malkin and Alastair Knowles.  Final performance on stage at The China Cloud on December 10, 2012 at 7:30pm.  Visit the James & Jamesy Facebook page for more information.  (Audience warning: not only could you find yourself part of the action onstage, you could also find yourself part of the group’s Facebook page the next day).

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