Review: The Doppel Gang at Tristan Bates Theatre

The Doppel Gang by Dominic Hedges introduces us to four mediocre performers attempting to save their cash-strapped theatre. After stumbling rather inexplicably on a stash of unproduced Marx Brothers material, they decide to try and pull off the ultimate con, impersonating the rising American stars in front of a London audience desperate to escape the horrors of the Blitz. Can they pull it off and make their escape with the cash, or will they be caught out?

It’s a fun idea, and the cast certainly seem to be enjoying themselves from the outset. The play opens with a Fawlty Towers-esque sketch scene, in which frustrated theatre owner Lombard has to deal with an incompetent workman up a ladder. Though it has little if anything to do with the rest of the story, it’s a well-fashioned salute to British humour, and sets up a nice contrast with the all-American comedy that dominates Act 2.

Photo credit: Mitchell Reeve
Photo credit: Mitchell Reeve

In fact, The Doppel Gang, directed by Terence Mann, takes great pleasure in lining up British and U.S. comedy alongside each other, and it makes the play very much one of two halves; Act 2 consists almost entirely of the group’s Marx Brothers act, whereas before the interval the focus is on establishing the characters and their often fractious relationships. Cyril (Jordan Moore) and Tommy (Peter Stone) can’t stand Lombard (Jake Urry), who they know full well is just using them for his own ends. And male impersonator Rachel (Rachel Hartley) is getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of respect she gets from the audience or her fellow performers – including her boyfriend Tommy.

The four characters’ constant sniping, and especially Rachel’s feisty disdain for the men she has to deal with, provided for me the funniest moments – although there are plenty of laughs to be found elsewhere too, especially for fans of the Marx Brothers. The cast’s enthusiasm for their subject is obvious, although not being an expert, I’ll leave it to those who know to judge the accuracy of their tribute act. And as the Brits, the four are just likeable and optimistic enough for us to overlook their conscription-dodging ways and wish them success.

There’s a subplot to all this, of course, in the threat of war that hangs over them all, and in the revelation of a secret that places one of the characters at even greater risk. The abrupt, subdued ending, coming so swiftly after half an hour of zany merriment, brings us back to earth with a bump, and out into the cold feeling slightly wrongfooted.

Photo credit: Mitchell Reeve
Photo credit: Mitchell Reeve

The set is really impressive for such a small space, with individual components – including a mobile proscenium arch – manoeuvred smoothly into position to take us on stage, off stage and on one occasion, underground. This gives the impression the stage is a lot bigger than it is, an idea backed up by Mitchell Reeve’s sound design, which recreates both the rumblings of war outside and the theatrical acoustics inside.

It’s a risky enterprise to make a comedy, because finding an approach everyone likes is practically impossible, but Just Some Theatre cover a couple of bases with The Doppel Gang, and do it well. I do feel that to fully appreciate this particular play you need to know and enjoy the Marx Brothers’ work (I was slightly in the dark at times during Act 2, if I’m totally honest), but nonetheless this is clearly a talented company with exciting times ahead.


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Interview: Dominic Hedges, The Doppel Gang

“The secret of good comedy is barking up the wrong tree,” says Dominic Hedges, a theatre and filmmaker from East London. His play, The Doppel Gang, is following up last year’s successful tour with a run at the Tristan Bates Theatre in the new year, presented by trio Just Some Theatre Company. Set in 1940s London, the play fuses the comedy of the Marx Brothers with classic British humour, against the all too serious backdrop of the Second World War and the Blitz. “Four conscription-dodging spivs try to save their crumbling theatre by impersonating the Marx Brothers, but naturally each party is in it for themselves,” summarises Dominic.

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The idea to write a play about the Marx Brothers came from Just Some Theatre Company: “They love the Marx Brothers! They approached me to write a piece for them and after a ton of knocking ideas about we decided that an out-and-out biography wasn’t what we wanted. So I took the floundering, double-dealing, British motley bunch route of old.”

So is this only a play for fans of the Marx Brothers? “No,” says Dominic. “It’s not a Marx Brothers tribute act. The show plays more as the recognisable British wartime drama-comedy where threads are pulled and twisted between characters, and misdirection and miscommunication lead to hilarious consequences, but then with this fat vein of Marx Brothers performance and wit bored through it.”

Generally considered to be among the most influential comedians of the 20th century, the popularity of the Marx Brothers continues to this day: “I think they tell jokes which we think we can write ourselves,” explains Dominic. “On paper they vary from rubbish Dad jokes to ingenious turns of phrase and wordplay. But when you hear the jokes delivered, especially when you watch them on film, each move of their comedy is unique and unmistakable. When U.S. film became more prevalent in the UK we lapped it up.”

Photo credit: Tom Barker

As a writer, Dominic has no qualms about handing his work over to a theatre company. “It’s exciting. The director Terence Mann is fantastic and we read from the same page more often than not. He knows what’s best for the show when they’re all in the room working and that’s something I had no interest in sticking my nose in! If it’s not as I envision it that’s probably a good thing. Having said that, if the zero-gravity scene on wires made the cut, I’ll be having words…

“My advice to a writer who’s just starting out would be: meet up with other writers, performers, artists, anybody you trust artistically, and read your work aloud. It’s the best thing in the world. Life is not a word processor. When I have serious doubts about my career choice it’s almost always because I’ve not heard my work aloud for a good while.”

And finally, who does Dominic think is funnier, Brits or Americans? His response is diplomatic: “Hmm… hard to say, but in a contest between the two, one of them is bound to win!”

The Doppel Gang is at Tristan Bates Theatre from 17th January-11th February.