A THREE-TIME Chortle award winner in Edinburgh in 2016, Joseph Morpurgo has a reputation as one of the sharpest minds in UK comedy. He tells EDWIN GILSON about his truly extraordinary new performance

WITH Hammerhead, Joseph Morpurgo was fascinated with the idea of creating an “impossible show”.

“I mean something so ambitious and out of control that it could never actually be made,” adds the comedian.

The thing that takes some explaining about all of this is that Hammerhead itself is not that ridiculous production.

Instead, his Brighton Fringe performance begins when Joseph has “returned” to the stage to take part in an audience Q & A after his non-existent nine-hour adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a mammoth version that encompasses 85 different characters and 12 languages.

Of course, such a show is completely absurd. But that doesn’t stop Joseph – or the character he plays – defending his baby to the hilt. That is until cracks begin to show in his facade and psychological breakdown seems imminent.

It’s a complex premise, no doubt, but Joseph insists it’s also just a “silly comedy”. While Joseph tries to add improvisational touches here and there, Hammerhead is also tightly structured and the questions are given to willing crowd members beforehand.

“We don’t force anyone to get involved, but they all participate in the unfolding madness,” says Joseph. The comic adds that his choice of novel is not incidental.

“Frankenstein is relevant, because Hammerhead is about an over-ambitious creative who tries to make something wonderful that will change the world and ends up building this botched monster that will destroy him,” he says. “I also wanted to explode the idea of the post-show Q & A.”

Joseph attended a few question and answer sessions for research purposes and found that “95 per cent of what is said” in such events is “varying degrees of waffle”. He acknowledges that they can be enlightening at times, but, for the most part, they’re not.

“It’s fairly perfunctory blabbing,” he says. “You get different gradients of idiocy. It’s like a dinner party where talk turns to politics but nobody is saying anything constructive, they’re just sounding off or doing their pre-prepared bit.”

So what is the actual point of Q & As, to his mind? “The audience gets to feel clever and the performers get to feel important, I suppose,” says Joseph.

The comedian also took influence from the strange spectacle of the David Bowie exhibition at the V & A museum in London a few years back. It was an extensive display of the musician’s memorabilia, but Bowie himself was conspicuous by his absence. “There were costumes, setlists and leftover relics but what’s missing is the man himself,” says Joseph. “In a way, that’s the same thing that happens in Hammerhead.”

Critics have praised the show for its pacing. Joseph is tasked with turning the mood from celebratory to unsettling in under an hour, as his character lurches from self-satisfied to unhinged. He admits that the descent into chaos can be difficult to judge.

“There is an element of farce in terms of setting the plates spinning before they crash in some way that is hopefully orderly,” he says. “It’s just me in front of you for 55 minutes, so it’s a challenge to ratchet up the tension without blowing out of steam.”

Joseph was a long-standing member of acclaimed improvisation group Austentatious, who, as the name suggests, take Jane Austen’s books as the starting point for their madcap comedy. Joseph says that literature is often just a way into exploring a certain comic theme, and it’s the same with Hammerhead.

“This isn’t a show with thick reams of textual analysis,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking too much about it being literary. But Frankenstein seemed a good fit because it’s become a cultural phenomenon, spawning books, films, games and comics. Even if all people know is the bolts in the neck, you still have a buy-in.”

While the format of Hammerhead might take some getting used to, you have to credit Joseph for his imaginative – and yes, novel – approach.

Joseph Morpurgo: Hammerhead

The Old Market, Hove,

May 30 to June 2