Often comedy reviewers talk about the temptation to ‘review the room’, that is, to comment on the venue, atmosphere and audience rather than the comedian on stage. While some temperature-gauging is necessary context for many a comedy review, it is sometimes difficult not to just describe one’s surrounds in order to avoid talking about the comedy itself.
With all that said, I’m going to spend a bit of time here reviewing the room, largely because the night I saw Suren Jayemanne did not feel representative of Jayemanne’s show. It’s a tough spot to be in as a comedian, when media night falls on something that feels so unusual that your show is somewhat derailed by it, and as reviewers all you can do is be mindful of it without dismissing it entirely. On the other hand, it’s impossible to review what you think the show could be.
The walls in the Mantra Hotel are thin, it turns out. Thin enough that against the background of a small, subdued audience, the raucous laughter of Cam Knight’s show can be heard as clear as a bell. It’s visibly distracting for Jayemanne, and it’s hard to imagine that even a packed and roaring crowd would ever be able to fully drown out Cam’s punchlines next door.
Squished into a 20 seater in Mantra on Russell, Jayemanne’s front row is so close to the stage that anyone seated there could smell him. One audience member sat there in order to do just that, and, somewhat surprised by this, Jayemanne struck up a conversation. It turns out that sometimes a chatty audience member is genuinely funny, and this threw Jayemanne off further, as he clearly wanted to engage more with the audience than continue through his prepared material. Jayemanne dismissed the show as a write off and an anomaly early on, rather than trusting himself to bring the audience into the flow of the show and back into the narrative. Instead a lot of the beats become truncated and the punchlines wobbly in the face of a rushed delivery and an already quiet crowd.
The material itself, the show that Surenity Now more closely resembles on paper, and perhaps on other nights, is solid, which makes Jayemanne’s quick dismissal of it all the more frustrating. There’s some slick puns. Jayemanne channels honest, eloquent outrage into a few of his jokes, critiques of how absurd yet scary the modern world is that structured as traditional observational comedy but that could come out with an extra punch. Jayemanne’s awkward yet affable manner has the potential to form the basis of strong audience banter too, provided he strengthens the transitions back into his own show. Given Jayemanne’s reputation for being both hard working and a fast learner, Surenity Now is still worth chancing. Maybe just avoid the front row.
Surenity Now is on at 8:30pm at Mantra on Russell until 22 April as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Tickets are available at the venue or via the MICF website.