Listen carefully now, because this multi-layered comic play is a complicated one to describe. We're here to witness a rare staging of the seminal Russian work Coughing Sheep – arranged by a pretentious thirty-something woman, who you strongly suspect isn't quite as artistically talented as she seems to believe. Her cast has abandoned her – who can blame them? – and so, in desperation, she's turned to the only available replacement: her supportive but strong-willed Dad.
The real actor playing Dad, Peter Henderson, is someone whose work I've enjoyed before; he does a nice line portraying annoying older men, and duly brings a faintly exasperating sense of cluelessness to his role. In the world of the play, however, he's a terrible actor, someone his daughter (ably played by Lucy Frederick) must be ashamed to perform alongside. Never fear though – he's done his research for his role, mainly by reading a bargain-basement book by an allegedly famous acting guru. Magnificently, the front-cover picture features the guru eye-to-eye with a cauliflower, with the vegetable in the role normally occupied by Yorick's skull.
The set-up's a witty one, and a very smart response to the real-world limitations of performing theatre in a free venue; possibly the funniest joke I've seen all Fringe is built around the lack of an effective blackout. And when, at Dad's insistence, the pair begin working through a few warm-up exercises, the laugh count and energy both stay high. The daughter plays along to an extent, as Dad unleashes inner animals, and enacts scenes which may or may not be taken from his real life. And he proves to be obsessed with angling as well – lending a whole new meaning to the old truism that there are plenty more fish in the sea.
For a long time, I suspected the joke would be that they never actually got around to doing the play. But no; there is indeed a performance of Coughing Sheep, and the script is indeed as awful as we'd expected it to be. A lot of the comedy in this second half relies on the well-worn device of inappropriate doubling, and perhaps they carry that gimmick to a fault; with each of the two actors playing a myriad of characters, you have to concentrate hard to pick up the humour of the plot. But a recurring surreal gag involving Parisian landmarks works very well, and the play's political undertones are suitably ridiculous – it's hard not to love a play which describes ordinary sheep as "the fleecy symbols of oppression".
What's lacking here, though, is much of a connection with the earlier scenes. A neat opening device, where Dad haplessly applies the lessons he's learned from the impromptu acting workshop, is all too quickly forgotten. And – in possibly the most bizarre criticism you'll ever read in a review – I have to say that both of the actors are a bit too good. The self-important daughter doesn't get the come-uppance we were all hoping for, and even Dad proves able to hold his own once the chips are down.
Overall then, Coughing Sheep isn't quite there: it's got a clever concept and plenty of personality, but they need to give some more thought to how it all hangs together. The play-within-a-play could be slicker and more heightened, and the meta-story needs to be carried through more. But it's silly and enjoyable – and it'll be quite a long time before I can keep a straight face in the presence of a cauliflower again.