Speaking with Joseph Morpurgo, it is perhaps not immediately apparent that you are talking to one of comedy’s most celebrated new stars, but with a trio of acclaimed and sold out Edinburgh shows under his belt, three Chortle Awards on a crowded mantelpiece, and his new show garnering his usual slew of laudatory reviews, you can be certain that this is the case.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that Morpurgo’s humour is not so eagerly displayed, given that his shows have taken their comedy from rich and preposterously developed premises, as with Soothing Sounds for Baby, which posed as an episode of Desert Island Disks and saw Morpurgo transform himself into the characters on the covers of his chosen records – the show is regularly spoken of as one the Edinburgh Comedy Award’s great near-misses.
When asked about the format for this years show, Hammerhead, Morpurgo answers promptly, as if he has been questioned on the unusual premise as often as you might expect: “For a while now I’ve wanted to do something where I develop a huge, wildly ambitious, richly imagined, kind of impossible show and then we as the audience would explore it from the margins.”
The reference to the active role of the audience is deliberate, and members should be prepared to get involved to fully enjoy and appreciate the – Jane Austen inspired improv troupe – Austentatious member’s show, as was the case with Soothing Sounds for Baby, in which “the entire audience were tucked beneath a giant sheet the size of the whole venue, to be read a bedtime story.”
Explaining the show, Morpurgo mentions the recent Bowie exhibition at the V&A in London, “where they had all of his costumes, posters, set lists, all this ephemera. Bowie wasn’t there, the music wasn’t there, but all of the relics were how you experienced his career. For this show I’ve done a similar thing. The idea of building this stupidly mad mega-show and then using the post-show set up to explore it from the margins using script extracts, props, and merchandise.”
Again, this doesn’t seem like an obvious starting to point for comedy, and yet Hammerhead has been authoritatively described as ‘an uproariously silly show, stuffed with so many jokes on screen and on stage that you could watch it twice and not stop laughing.’ And this is not to say that the humour does not have edge or direction, with swipes taken at the brittle ego of the actor, and “plenty to grab onto if you know the book,” but, at the front of it, “all you need to know to enjoy the show is something to do with this monster with bolts in his neck.”
With Morpurgo designing and making all of the music and videos himself, this multimedia show is undoubtedly ambitious. Indeed, ambition itself seems a prevalent motif of the work, both in Doctor Frankenstein of the source material, “who thinks he can change the world forever by making this glorious creature and beating death,” and in the sole character of Morpurgo’s show, “a young, over-ambitious performer, who has made this supposedly world changing theatre piece, but might not be quite as good as he thinks he is.”
The ambition of Morpurgo’s shows is consistent though: before Soothing Sounds, 2015’s show Odessa took a VHS of old US News footage and, with the characters seen, spun a sprawling, mysterious, whodunnit that has been compared to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. While I get the impression that Morpurgo is a Lynch fan, it seems the comparison is incidental: “You don’t make things hoping to be compared to specific people, because then you’re just kind of emulating them. But inevitably the things you like and love in music and film become a part of you and knock around in your subconscious.”
This is surely undoubted in Morpurgo’s case, given his tendency to pastiche previous works and formats for his own shows, but his own well-crafted ingenuity promises that the source never dominates the meal. Hammerhead promises more of the impossible to predict same from the understated eccentric.
Joseph Morpurgo is performing Hammerhead at The Old Market from 30 May to 2 Jun.