There’s all sorts of clichés about laughing hard; doubled over with laughter, howling with laughter, shrieking with laughter, and so on. In attempting to sidestep cliché as much as possible I can only tell the truth, I laughed so much my throat hurt. I didn’t even recognise my own laugh by the end, as it devolved into less of a laugh and more of a coughing fit. Never has a show subjected me to such an implacable assault of pitiless laughter. It’s not at all hyperbolic to say A Sketch for Depressives is exhaustingly funny.
At the centre of it all is Anna Mann, played by Colin Hoult. Eclectic, vulgar, and medicated, Mann is a failed actress, committed debauchee and a spectacular comic creation. The layers of verbal refrains and vocal quirks that Hoult imbues Anna Mann with are stunning. It’s frankly incredible how much expertly crafted humour is packed into it all. Not a single line is said without something to laugh at in it.
What amazes most is the level of ad lib Hoult manages with the crowd, whether it’s in planned interactive segments or in unscripted interruptions. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find that Hoult has a detailed account of Mann’s entire life held in his head for reference, so that there’s no answer or heckle that could possibly stop him, and nothing does. Someone in the audience began crying at one sketch, for reasons it would be tactless to repeat, and even that couldn’t stump him. He handled the situation with sensitivity and wit, all while still in character.
He’s also to be praised for playing a woman in a way that feels like the joke isn’t at anybody’s expense. Where other ‘drag’ acts often feel like a man dressed as woman is the whole joke, with Anna Mann it’s the woman he’s dressed as that’s the joke. It feels as though the gender difference is totally incidental, and that no one else could possibly have played this character. It’s so easy to forget she’s not real that it couldn’t possibly matter in any case.
The conceit is that Mann, a long-time sufferer of depression and anxiety, decides for totally arcane reasons to put on a bizarre, neurotic sketch show at the Fringe. It’s a great premise, and an even better excuse for Hoult to play Anna Mann, playing other characters. Each is as multi-dimensional as the star of the show, complete with verbal ticks and idiosyncratic dialogue to enliven them. Mann also has two mistreated assistants, ostensibly drama students she’s drafted in, and they too are hilarious, depositing a ladle of physical comedy into the cauldron.
It’s rude, dark, inspired, more than a little homo-erotic and completely and utterly hysterical. I don’t think I could find something bad to say if I watched it ten times.