Self-help and motivational speaking have provided rich pickings for comedy over the years, and do so again in Anna & Helen’s debut Stuck in a Rat. Mind you, these two could joke about practically anything, I’d guess, and make it funny. It’s the way they tell ’em – with a delectable clownish touch and an expert deployment of the straight woman/funny woman dynamic.
Once fellow members of Footlights, it’s the first time Anna O’Grady and Helen Cripps have performed as a duo, a decade or more into their acting careers. I hope it won’t be the last. I loved their faux self-care seminar, inviting us to “hop aboard the rejuvenation train” and haul ourselves out of our rat – or should that be rut, or some undiscovered word in-between? The show considers various means of doing so – travel, exercise, love – in direct address, video and song. (The pair are adroit multi-instrumentalists and singers-in-harmony.)
The joke is that Anna and Helen are klutzes, ill-equipped to fix their own lives, far less anyone else’s. They bump into one another; they try to speak in sync, and fail. Anna is the worst offender; Helen is forever pulling her back into line. And O’Grady plays the fool – wide-eyed, always puzzled by why things aren’t quite working as they should – with a lovely light touch.
I could watch their “glass half full” routine over and over again. Then there’s the moment when Helen, having played a word association game with the audience, asks daydreamy Anna if she’s noted down the responses. The pause – and her expression! – as she weighs up how to answer (shameful truth or out-on-a-limb white lie?) is comic bliss.
Not everything flies: once the gag behind their “best woman speech” skit is revealed, it’s got nowhere to go. But there’s so much to enjoy here, as they peer behind the cheery veneer of the world’s happiest animals, interact time-warpingly with their screen selves (shades of The Pin here) and deliver a hilariously petulant song about losing friends to parenthood. It’s taken a while for Anna and Helen to double up, but it was worth the wait.