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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Shortlist (Assembly George Square)

A wild goose chase in want of wit

There’s an unfortunate irony in a play about two creatives competing for attention and respect in an arena like the Edinburgh Fringe. In Shortlist, written by Brian Parks, two rival novelists Higgins and Houghton find themselves shortlisted for a big literature award – and not for the first time. In order to finally conquer the other they decide to seek the ghostly approval of “The Great Writer” by visiting her home, exchanging many a scathing literary jab along the way.

And there is no doubt that those scathing jabs are what we are here for – it’s a dream formula for anyone with a mean streak who wants to see two egotists taking digs at each other. And actors Matthew Boston (Haughton) and Daniel Llewelyn-Williams (Higgins) certainly have the comedic timing perfected – you couldn’t ask for snappier comebacks. One would expect the insults themselves to be every bit as brilliant as the delivery – what with them being writers and all. Instead, the majority of their insults, and the dialogue in general, revolve around tedious aspects of literature and books. We have discussions of blurb flaps, arguments over whether page edges should be rough or smooth, and riveting dialogue such as “it starts on page one” “with the first word” “in the first paragraph”. Who cares?

When the script isn’t focused on dreary details of grammar and bookbinding it is far too crude for its target audience. There are a few gems in the writing, for example “You’re addicted to adverbs!” “Hardly.”, but it is in company with lines comparing the other’s writing to “the droppings from mediocrity’s anus”. Part of the problem comes down to the characters. Both are written and performed so similarly to each other that there is barely anything specifically insulting that can be said about either of them – they could swap half their dialogue and their characters would remain unchanged. And although Boston and Llewelyn-Williams have the timing down to a fine art, most of their delivery is too harsh to be truly cutting.

This is the second Brian Parks play I have seen at the Fringe, the other being Enterprise which came to the festival in 2017. Both works are plagued by an overreliance on comic timing to disguise the lack of depth in the writing, and a tendency to centre male ego without being critical of it. Although this is not as egregious as it is in Enterprise (“What’s astrology?” “Astronomy for girls”), Shortlist has a masculine smugness that is entirely unearned. Shortlist is quick to make jokes but doesn’t have the plot or characters to underpin them. One can hardly blame a work for wanting to be witty, but one can hardly be witty without putting in the work. Two stars.

Whispers from the Crowd: "Incredible! We don't understand how anyone could remember all those lines." "It was clever and so funny"

Shortlist will play at Assembly George Square until August 28th.


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