Fandom culture is fascinating. It’s hysterical, it’s heartfelt, and for those involved, it’s very real. I was an avid Sherlockian as a young teenager. I cried and yelled when Sherlock jumped off that roof. I went to the conventions, I read the blogs. My feelings towards Cumberbatch have moved more towards ambivalence in recent years, as I realised that it was Sherlock I loved, not him. But the nostalgia for that fervid passion remains. I know how real the pain of loving something to the point of obsession can be. All to often, the passion of young women for celebrities is dismissed and demeaned. But the adoration (and the creativity, friendships, and fun that comes with it) is real.
This is what Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die fails to explore. I expected to relate to this show, and occasionally I did. But throughout most of the play, the three characters remain stereotypes of obsessive fans and we never really learn much more about them. We are presented with Clarissa (Frith Horan), an uptight aspiring actress, who is holding a meeting of ‘Cumberbitches’ (this term is contentious, and highlighted within the play as such) in her home, which features a shrine to the life-size cardboard cutout of Cumberbatch. Tamara (Lucy Suttor), a moody erotic fan fiction author and socially awkward fangirl Genevieve (Donna Brookbanks) arrive on the scene, and antics ensue. The actors do their best with Abby Howell’s script, and often succeed in delivering the laughs but their characters don’t develop enough to allow us to truly care about them, or relate to their obsessive behavior.
The core of the play lies in their fantasy sequences, where they reenact each others wildest Cumber-dreams. Clarissa’s fantasies centre around co-starring with Cumberbatch. Tamara’s are oddly filled with celebrity references, and despite the promise of her depraved desires, we don’t see much to indicate that she’s any more perverted than the rest of them once we delve into her fantasy world. Genevieve’s characterisation is the sweetest, as a girl whose fantasies are based in realism, mostly hoping to just get a chance to even talk to Cumberbatch. Despite this character sometimes coming off as reductive or stereotypical, because of the earnestness of Brookbanks performance we care about her the most. Her character is the only one who really takes an emotional journey, and deals with real anxieties. She reads the other girls a self-insert fan-fiction about meeting the actor, which features her as a barista calling out ‘Coffee’s for sale, coffee’s for sale!’ and informing Cumberbatch that she really liked his work in Sherlock.
Where the play does succeed is in it’s absurdism, as the delusions and fantasies become preposterous and specific. The girl’s suggestions for what to do if Cumberbatch arrives are truly funny, such as welcoming Cumberbatch to New Zealand with a ceremonial haka, or perhaps not eating for several days so that he’ll have to feed them when he arrives. And indeed, that perhaps, they could kill him. The decision that the object of their love must die comes too late in the play, and then feels rushed and not fully realised. We’ve spent too much time on pop culture references and jabs towards the socially inept, and now the claim that ‘Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die’ feels as unlikely as the rest of their characterisation. I’m not saying the play shouldn’t have been silly. It was delightful the sillier it got. But I would have cared more if the silliness had been rooted in realer and more touching characters.
There’s potential here, however, and the actors have a good comedic ability. With some development and editing, and a bit of culling back of the more obvious ‘fangirls are awkward’ humour and some character development, Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die could have seen a very funny and absurd foray into the heart of a fangirl. It had the potential to be, but too often I felt like I was reading a tumblr text post with the aim of serving up relatable humour, rather than any insight. When Tamara learns that the others have read her erotic fanfictions, she’s mortified, claiming that she thought a blog was like a diary, rather than something others can read online. Are we supposed to believe that this fashionable and internet savvy fangirl doesn’t know how blogs work? Too often, the gags rely on stretches such as this.
I’m left with the impression that some solid humour about fan culture sits within this work, and could have made a good skit, but the idea simply isn’t yet realised enough to carry an hour and fifteen minute long play. The fans are never humanised enough for us to believe in them as people, and therefore understand their love and their pain for a celebrity.
Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die plays at The Basement until 27 Feb. Details see The Basement.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Chloe Baynes