Charlie Russell Aims to Please review – party pieces with an uneasy twist

·2 min read

“You can’t please everyone,” Charlie Russell’s been told, to which she wants to reply: wanna bet? This solo debut presented by Mischief Theatre, in whose shows she stars, finds Russell rising to that challenge. Audience members are asked for their favourite ever shows; Russell then delivers party pieces catered to their taste. Imagine being stuck in a room with someone desperate to ingratiate herself, by any means necessary. That’s this hour – until a final-act volte face, which takes the show in a more compelling but just as disconcerting direction.

There’s very little to the first two-thirds beyond Russell showing us what she can do. You like musicals? She sings I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No. (The whole song? The whole song.) You like drama? She stages a scripted dramatic scene, apropos of nothing, with one part played by a gent in the front row. Elsewhere, there’s a short film in the style of Jane Austen, and a speech splicing countless Shakespeare quotes and recited against the clock. All are offered up with crowd-work skill and stage-school gusto. But the point of each individual routine, beyond Russell’s aim to please, isn’t always clear.

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Obviously, there’s a twist coming: it can’t just be this. When it comes, the show gets more interesting, as Russell takes to the standup mic with a bad-taste set about her mum. Soon, revelations start to flow, about her real relationship with people-pleasing and her craving for the audience’s love.

Even while acknowledging this is clearly an emotionally significant issue for the performer, I found these latter stages as over-emphatic as the earlier sections were thin. At risk of spoilers, suffice to say the audience are browbeaten into complicity with a performance that feels uncomfortably raw and vulnerable – before Russell turns again towards a cathartic finale.

Many’s the act, particularly in Edinburgh, to have made gripping work, in the margins between comedy and theatre, about their troubled mental health. For me, Russell’s show doesn’t get that balance right – not right enough, at least, to redeem the insistently winsome first 40 minutes of the show. But then, you can’t please everyone, right?