Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"Look, can I be frank here?"
"S-sure. Of c-course."
"I'm just worried that...
"I'm just worried the audience won't know how to react.
"After sitting, watching this thing for hours.
"To have it end just like that?
"I'm worried they might feel ripped off."
Haha!! There's a delicious irony at play there, which I will leave you to discover for yourselves... The quote itself is taken from the exceptionally clever extended story, The Unofficial Cuckoo's Nest Study Companion, which forms the main part of this collection. It's actually one of the most deftly nested set of stories within a story I've read for some time, starting with stage notes explaining how we are about to play the role of the Reader. Which apparently can "often attract positive attention from cute boys wearing glasses, sitting across from them on the train, and you can only hope for similarly positive reviews".
It revolves around our lead of Robin Huang, a stage director whose meteoric rise to superstardom and West End luvviehood was abruptly halted by an ill-received reworking of 'Macbeth' focusing almost entirely on Lady Macbeth. She's been tapped by a rather laissez-faire BBC producer called Benjamin to adapt the equally ill-received titular novel by A.B. Cadbury. Thrown in for good measure is Robin's mildly delinquent teenage daughter Natalie, whose primary focus seems to be winding up her teacher Mr. King whilst studying said book, which presumably explains the wider title itself.
The Cuckoo's Nest novel has suddenly made it onto Natalie's school syllabus due to A.B. Cadbury receiving the annual BBC Fine Fellowship, which in addition to a small stipend means for the period of a year the corporation will focus on promoting the winner's works in a myriad of ways. Hence the commissioning of the stage play. Oh, and did I mention it is going to be broadcast live on BBC4 and Benjamin wants opening night to be in a mere six weeks time...? Which is not taken well by Wally the set designer, a man obsessed with perfection, and so who is therefore insisting on hand making it all himself. Good job he's not planning on building a full sized house with various moving and revolving elements... Ah.
As a study in what is, I am sure, a veritable pressure-cooker environment, directing a play, the additional farcical elements Luke squeezes into this situational comedy are absolute gold. (I should add, by the way, that upon finishing this it has made me really want to watch Christopher Guest's 'Waiting For Guffman' again soon.) As Robin begins to feel the pressure rising ever further, convinced everyone is going to hate her adaptation, presuming by some miracle she somehow manages to get it ready by opening night, the last things she needs are her daughter managing to get suspended by pushing poor Mr. King just a wee bit too far this time, and Wally managing to mangle yet another potential leading man with his hazardous over-elaborate set.
When the various story elements begin to overlap and intertwine you will be wondering what on earth is going to happen next. There was one twist I certainly didn't see coming, which produces a hilarious life-imitating-art moment referencing events in the novel. It's not the only one either... As I say, very clever.
Fleshing this collection out exquisitely are some of Luke's auto-biographical woes on the emotional trials and tribulations of being a comics creator and his father's repeated attempts to persuade him that becoming an accountant and joining the family firm would be a considerably better career option. Interspersed with those mildly excruciating excerpts are a series of fictional strips about two prickly neighbours, and only moderately social misfits, Amir and Mo, who are like ships that pass in the night in their apartment block, barely aware of each other's existence, their primary interaction being Amir banging on the ceiling to stop Mo playing his trumpet. Except for the time they get stuck in the lift together, which despite finally giving them the time to get to know each other, only serves to eventually end up driving even more of a wedge between them.
It's like some people just don't know how to be happy! Luke does. Though he apparently isn't, judging by his black shadow of doom following him around, but he's convinced being nominated for another comics awards would help! The Unofficial Cuckoo's Nest Study Companion was very deservedly up for an Ignatz.
Art-wise, this is an equally wonderfully constructed affair, with a rolling mixture of sequences of small panels, excerpts of text á la TAMARA DREWE, borderless panels and various other cheeky conceits such as having the occasional conversation displayed typed-out as if in a script using a classic old-school typewriter font. Plus even the odd photo crafted in for good measure, which actually works perfectly both times it is used as a conceit.
In fact, I suspect the first instance, which is very amusing in its own right, is purely to set up and prepare the reader for the later, much more spectacular use which provokes an entirely appropriate response from Robin that tickled me greatly. The art itself due to the neat and minimal thin line work minded me a little bit of early Chester Brown with a bit less inking and shading. I love to see such apparently simple yet intricately detailed work. Whilst I can't promise an eventual West End stage adaptation of this for Luke, I think I certainly can guarantee him considerable sales off the shelves of the Page 45 retail theatre.