By Anna Hayes
My record with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival has been something of a mixed bag since moving to Australia four years ago.
In 2019, I saw a very entertaining improv group, and last year my boyfriend and I were the only two people at a gig where, in answer to a particular question from said comedian, I gave the stupidest answer known to mankind.
And obviously there was one particular year where nobody went anywhere and, in reality, we could have all done with a good laugh. That leads me to inform readers that Dylan Cole’s show Case Numbers is NOT about COVID. Despite the title and the compulsive jolt your stomach might have at the sound of it, the show is far simpler than that.
On paper, it’s about Cole trying to crack a code to access the contents of a locked briefcase, left to him by his grandmother who may or may not have been a Communist spy.
The show opens with a series of disclaimers as to what the show isn’t – all in good sport, of course, and we learn that the show is, in no particular order: a storytelling show and not a comedy; has no beginning, a pointless middle, and no ending; and is a pack of lies from start to finish. We also garner an entirely valid list of people whom he considers to be ‘arse monkeys’.
So, how to review a show that is, as Cole puts it himself, about nothing?
I’ll be straight-up (as opposed to stand-up) and say that I am not a comedy aficionado – my background really lies more in theatre reviewing so it’s definitely a departure for me. That said, there are common elements between both types of show – it still has to be written and performed.
To that end, what’s most impressive about the show is the fact that Cole has managed to, essentially, write about 20-30 minutes of material and fashion a 55-65 minute show from it, in a way that doesn’t make the audience feel cheated. He’s taken the Russian doll motif and weaved it through the show – we see repeated scenarios but each one is slightly twisted, it’s just a little bit different but enough to garner the laughs.
It is, if you want to be more writer-y about it, a play within a play within a play within…, and so on.
It’s the thing that Cole laments throughout the show – that he didn’t write a better beginning, middle or ending because he assures us that, actually, he’s quite a good writer.
The show that he has written is clever and assured. We don’t have gags that go nowhere (mainly because the show doesn’t really go anywhere) – there’s always a pay-off, sometimes a little predictable but amusing nonetheless. In telling us that Case Numbers isn’t a comedy show, Cole is almost daring us to take it seriously which, after about five minutes, you know you simply can’t.
It’s an enjoyable trip down memory lane in many respects too – while I missed some of the more distinctly Aussie references, particularly a piracy joke, my boyfriend laughed joyfully which was a good enough indicator for me. There’s also some nice nostalgia and Cole’s impersonations of both Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin are both entertaining and remarkably accurate!
He has great stage presence and the few “story related” moments of the show are nicely executed – his memory of watching James Bond movies with his grandmother is a nice moment that, inevitably, gives way to the notion that she was actually a Communist spy, wandering around with her attaché briefcase.
There’s a nice ‘innocence of youth’ feel to that interlude and it is notably one of the few parts that doesn’t end up being repeated at any point – fitting that the key to the whole mystery is hiding in a sea of noise.
Cole, despite his self-deprecation, is an accomplished performer and much like the spy movies that he parodies, it’s hard to know what’s real or not. A breakdown in technology at the start of the show is executed so well that, as one audience member said, ‘I still don’t know if that was part of the show or not’.
In the end, the case numbers of the title don’t really matter too much – the case itself is the McGuffin of the piece, serving simply to keep the show running on a loop until the stage manager decides ‘enough is enough’ and turfs us all out to set up for the next show! In hindsight, it had to end that way…
Case Numbers is entertaining and mad-cap in a good way with enough recent and older pop culture references to keep the laughs rolling along. It’s light and fun, and definitely a good start to my MICF 2023 journey.
Image: Emma Holland