Plays in the Den? There is a good reason really, as some of America’s best TV writing talent of the past fifteen years have crossed the pond to the Kings Head Theatre in Islington. The Simpsons, you may remember, was a hilarious programme in days gone by. So was Third Rock from the Sun. And Spongebob Squarepants. And Drawn Together. So, take comic talent that have written – or in the case of the Simpsons, voiced the lead –and Islington will be getting a great play, right?
Wrong. Oh dear Lord, you are wrong and this play is so, so wrong that you will find yourself reappraising their collective back catalogue to see if it was actually rubbish all along. The Bicycle Men purports to lampoon stereotypes, but ends up squarely aimed at the sad, alienated morose members of society who declare their gently xenophobic comments to actually be a grand stand against political correctness. Which is kind of what the Simpsons does now, if you think about it.
Castellaneta is obviously why people are here. If he’s trying to escape his yellow-hued fame, he’s got the massive advantage that, as a skinny, nervous-looking man who looks more like an accountant than the voice of an international phenomenon, he is as unassuming as they come.
He plays Steve, a middle-aged American cyclist who is passing the time in an unhinged French village while his bike is fixed. He encounters the Spotters Guide to French Stereotypes in the mean time, including the sex-crazed puppeteer, snooty restauranteur and – oh, those crazy French! – an idiot mime.
The stereotypes are knowingly played up to, but it looks as if writer Mark Nutter is too amused with his own keen eye for absurdity to do anything with them. The French characters’ loftiness is arguably supposed to be balanced by the Americans’ gullibility and cultural backwardness. Aiming for the theatre of the absurd, he has instead taken a wrong turn to a malicious ‘Allo ‘Allo.
The real question is how performers with such fine pedigree for penning similar but better material ended up with this. Take the song ‘You Can’t Have a Fish Fry Without A White Guy’, sung across the interval. There isn’t any racist intent here, but the writing is so clunkily strung together that I spent the entire song looking for what the actual intent is. You can’t relax while watching something so badly written.
This is the problem that pervades the whole play. It is the sort of humour that requires a far defter touch than is on show in either the writing or the acting. Even the jokes and songs that stay the right side of self-conscious wackiness leave you uneasy because of their proximity to the downright offensive.
Castellaneta himself aims for bewilderment and contained anger as the stranded cyclist, but settles instead at pedestrian. Still, the audience’s slightly too-keen laughter for his workaday acting betrays the real reason the pub theatre is almost full.
Most frustrating of all, there are some genuinely good jokes fighting to get out here. A chorus of Broadway boys protesting too keenly they’re heterosexuality should be funny.
But between the self-consciously loony flotsam and xenophobic jetsam, it gets lost by association with rubbish. Rent series six of The Simpsons and try to ignore this shocker.