Camden Fringe 2019
Verity Williams’s first solo show is a love affair between a young woman and Hollywood actor Jake Gyllenhaal. It is an exploration of chronic loneliness and the lengths we go to combat it, utilising elements of clown, burlesque and puppetry. But Williams warns: the part of Jake Gyllenhaal will be played by an office chair.
When you read that the titular role of the play you are about to watch will be played by an office chair you may have some questions. But the truth is that this is just a smart marketing trick because the show is not about Jake Gyllenhaal at all. Although he is definitely present (played by the chair and then briefly by a coat hanger), the show is truly about chronic loneliness.
Chronic loneliness is not in itself a mental health condition, but it can contribute to the vicious cycle of anxiety and depression, both as a trigger and symptom. And in our day and age, it is thriving. This makes ‘Jake’ a very topical, relatable and in a way comforting, piece of theatre. And all that while it still manages to be hilarious and entertaining.
An intimate space like the Hen & Chickens Theatre is the perfect canvas for ‘Jake’. From the moment the show starts the audience is involved in the story and as it goes on this feeling becomes even stronger. The beginning of the story mainly involves observing Williams’s private moments with Jake (a smartly dressed office chair with the actor’s face glued on a balloon). But she is always aware that we are watching her and so puts on a bit of a performance for us – using exceptional physical comedy and recreating some famous moments from epic love stories such as The Titanic, Lion King and, of course, Romeo and Juliet.
The next layer of the show is moments where we are all involved in a sort of TED talk. Williams puts on a pair of glasses for that part and makes the leap from clowning to a straight character; a confident keynote speaker. These parts serve to unfold what is really going on, but they are not expositional in any way. They remain comedic, they make the audience feel involved and they are quite informative.
The final layer is always there, reflected in Williams’s eyes. It is the pain and boredom that comes with loneliness, the feeling that you are worthless and it must all be your fault that nobody likes you. Although present throughout, it takes over in the final part of the play, when Williams addresses us with a beautiful and honest monologue. Right before she shouts to her techie to stop the music. She looks vulnerable and uncertain about whether she can continue. Then she tells us bluntly that she had scripted the following part, but she thinks it’s best if she just “wings it”. Her performance is so truthful and natural that to this moment I cannot say for sure whether the whole thing was scripted or whether she genuinely “winged it”.
This is what makes ‘Jake’ so special. Williams cannot only hold a one-person show, but she is absolutely extraordinary to watch. It doesn’t feel like she’s breaking the fourth wall, because it doesn’t feel like there was a wall there in the first place. All walls are down and all her guards. She is completely vulnerable in that room with us for real. By the end of the play, you may well forget that room was even a theatre. And she achieves this by taking major risks. Instead of relying on the odd look to the audience or simply addressing us during her speeches, she acknowledges us every single moment. This risk massively pays off. Perhaps it meant that a joke was missed in that performance due to an audience member who could actually spell Gyllenhaal’s name, but it is a small price to pay. There is so much improvisation as a result of our reactions that the line between what is scripted and what isn’t is completely blurred. Which ultimately is what makes that final monologue so powerful.
But aside from her reactions to ours, there is also proper audience involvement too. With the most notable one being when she asked someone to give her away for her wedding to Jake. Another highlight is how she uses her hands as Jake’s, giving herself affection that she so desperately needs. It is done so well that one moment it is hilarious and the next it is actually quite sad.
Williams has created a well-structured show with a powerful message. It takes the audience on a journey and through a spiral of emotions, leaving us shaken. It may be a fringe production, but it is only a few tweaks away from West End or National Theatre standard. The story is beautiful, her performance captivating and the ending powerful. Some moments may be stronger than others and perhaps there is room to be even bolder with the physical comedy, but there is nothing that a bit more experimenting can’t fix.
With my mind blown by the experience, I contemplated what rating this show really deserved: it is daring, it is excellent and I cannot recommend it enough. But as I was arriving home I secretly wished I could find the time to catch the show again before this run is over. At that point, it became clear: ‘Jake’ is a MUST SEE. Congratulations.