A witty, rough-round-the-edges tale of two young men and their desire to reach the heady heights of Top of the Pops, Cogito Ergo Bum tells the story of Mike (Sam Morris) and Tony (Jack Lahiff), two flatmates in 90s England. Their life-long dream (for about a week) is to win a Battle of the Bands and win studio time to write their seminal album, with fame and fortune to come. The only problem? They aren’t very good.
Written by Jonathan Davies and Ian Sheard, Cogito Ergo Bum takes its name from the Latin philosophical proposition by Rene Descartes, translated into English as ‘I think therefore I am.’ The name becomes the proposed name for Tony and Mike’s debut album; in their words, it covers both those interested in seventeenth-century French philosophy and those who love bums. All bases covered, then.
Directed by Davies (with Sheard as assistant director) and produced by Sophie Curtis, the play is set in their dingy studio apartment. Cogito Ergo Bum’s crisp-packet and Domino box-strewn apartment gives the production a quality similar to that of Bottom and Men Behaving Badly, or, as the post-2000 example, Peep Show. In a show where ‘dreams’ consist of winning a Battle of the Bands, a complex set is not required, and theirs is quaint, in a clumsy, dirty fashion that most students will be all too familiar with.
The play begins with Tony and Mike giving a lesson on musical theory, filled with ‘counterpoints’, Bach and Morrissey. The initial exchanges between the pair felt slightly tense, with the delivery of a few of the initial punchlines slightly rushed. In this initial scene, the two actors taking another breath before replying would have been beneficial; it is a testament to their chemistry that, once they had settled into the performance, the pair bounced off each other very well.
In terms of the humour, the first scene sets the tone for the play. Much of the humour is witty, and intended to be said in low-key, deadpan fashion (again, a slightly less lewd Bottom, or even a less historical Blackadder is a useful comparison), and much of Davies’ and Sheard’s writing hits home. A particular highlight of this reviewer consists of Mike insisting that ‘Mahogany Blues’, a song he wrote at 15 about a break-up he hadn’t had yet, was not to be put on the album. Tony’s reply, using the metaphor of Morrissey’s The Smiths and ‘This Charming Man’ is inspired.
“The musical numbers that are dotted through the performance certainly add a welcome dimension to the play.”
Mel (Prue Sparkes) and Viola (Darcey Graham) are quickly introduced into the play, as the infinitely more musically talented counterpoint to the dishevelled duo. Tony and Viola’s recent break-up becomes a point of hilarity, as Mel and Viola’s track written at Tony’s expense is another of the play’s highlights.
The musical numbers that are dotted through the performance certainly add a welcome dimension to the play and are backed by a selection of the best of Britpop that plays at every scene change. Sparkes is particularly impressive as the motor-mouthed Mel and exuded a quiet confidence in her performance throughout. That this is her first NNT production makes this even more impressive.
Zendell Crichlow, as the Daemon of ‘utmost power and cunning’ who comes to offer the boys a chance to win the Battle of the Bands, steals the scene more often than not, with his flamboyant, boisterous portrayal. This is not a fault of the other actors, however, as it seemed to this reviewer that this was an intentional decision of director and producer.
There were a few moments where this being the first performance of the run did shine through, not least when Tony called Mike ‘Mark’ on a couple of occasions, or accidentally said Mel’s name instead of Viola. Neither of these was particularly terminal and were played off very well by the actors without losing the rhythm of the performance, which is a credit in of itself.
“A lot of the smaller issues will almost certainly be ironed out with a few more performances.”
As the play moves into the second half and the treacherous nature of the ‘deal’ Tony and Mike have made with the Daemon become clearer and clearer, the humour remains strong and doesn’t feel strained, despite the faster pace.
Lighting (Adam Frankland) and sound (Esther Butterworth) are used to great effect, but, like the set design, are not overcomplicated. Where the Daemon reveals that a scene seemingly taking place in Mel and Viola’s apartment is still Tony and Mike in theirs, the rather rough-and-tumble approach to dragging Tony and Mike back to reality adds to the charisma of proceedings.
The musical number at the end of the play is a welcome way to finish off a charming, not-overly complex production. That the musical numbers were devised by the cast is also impressive.
As a performance, it certainly was not perfect. A lot of the smaller issues will almost certainly be ironed out with a few more performances, and the chemistry of the male leads (be them arguing or announcing their inherent genius) pulls you into the show.
As something that does not take itself too seriously, it is a witty, light-hearted 80-minute show that will certainly leave you with at least one well-timed, well-written gag that you can use in your own conversations, about philosophy, the nature of mastery, or Morrissey being a prick.
And if that isn’t enough to get you come, then the chance to see Ian Sheard’s bottom on an album cover must surely sway you into doing so.
Disclaimer: This reviewer shares a house with Ian Sheard.
All images courtesy of Nottingham New Theatre Official Facebook Page.
Cogito Ergo Bum is on from Monday 7th-Tuesday 8th May at the Nottingham New Theatre.