In April 2008, JMC directed a showcase production of Histrionics by James Butler at the One Act Play Festival at the Tabard Theatre.
In Summer 2008, he directed a full-scale production of the play at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which ran at Underbelly's Baby Belly 1, 31 July - 24 August at 11.40AM daily.
Histrionics is James Butler's debut play, the first draft of which was written when he was an undergraduate on the BA Creative and Media Wriiting degree which JMC teaches on at Middlesex University. When James B graduated (with a first class degree), he continued to develop Histrionics, first through readings at the Drill Hall and the Etcetera Theatre in Camden Town, then entering it into the One Act Play festival, where it was given a work-in-progress performance. JMC directed this, and when James Butler decided to take the play to the Edinburgh Fringe festival, he asked JMC to come along as director.
Histrionics is set in a London coffee house called The Whistling Whistle, just off Drury Lane, in 1702. It tells the story of the recently orphaned inheritor of the coffee house, one Wolfio Pigram - an aspiring actor and playwright. Wolfio plans to stage his debut play, a commedia piece, in the Whistle. The regulars at the coffee house - cynical journalist Rolf, henpecked apothecary Vole and war-damaged veteran Crimbo - are shocked by Wolfio's plans, which are thrown into chaos by the arrival of an ambitious actress called Furtive Grange and the appearance of the ghost of Wolfio's mother Nimbus.
The play is a rollicking and farcical piece, yet it deals with basic issues of human existence - goals, grief, love and death. The historical setting in 1702 London shows a nascent world of personal aspiration and self-orientated ambition - which by the early 21st Century has reached a fever pitch in the advanced West, with its Pop Idol contests and Big Brother attention-grabbing. Wolfio's inheritence allows his to "follow his dreams" but his dreams are invaded by Furtive, set on following her own objectives and willing to do anything - seduce, bully and even kill - to achieve them. Furtive ends up being given enough rope to hang herself with, but her swinging corpse at the end of the play both poetically prophecies the doom of the Jade Goodys of our time and asks a question about what other opportunities to express themselves do excluded individuals have - Furtive being a lone woman in what is very much a boy's club.
JMC's production of Histrionics was influenced by commedia and pantomime as well as the paintings of Hogarth and the drawings of Rowlandson. The characters were large and lunatic but the essential truths of where they were coming from as human beings was preserved. A live Lute accompanied the action.
The cast consisted of Daniela Finley (Furtive), Sean Garvey (Vole), Paul L. Martin (Nimbus), Christopher Niederberger (Wolfio), David Shuker (Crimbo and Officer) and Brendan Wyre (Rolf and Judge), with Offue Okegbe as the Ethereal Lutist. The production was designed by Mike Lees with Lighting by Howard Hudson.
Critical reaction was mixed, with the Edinburgh Evening News appreciating "a well-written script... an entertaining show with comedy and good acting" and One4review finding that "The courtroom scene at the end is the highlight of the play when the comedy, drama and quality of acting reach their highest levels." Three Weeks described the play as having "Plenty of slapstick bumbling and tomfoolery, a few ditties and even a ghostly dame" before summing up with "James Butler's script takes a quirky and mildly bizarre approach to exploring histrionic personality disorders, through a host of attention craving characters. There are laughs to be had, and, although I found it excessively silly, that might be your bag." Broadway Baby website dismissed the so-called silliness as "dubious slapstick", scolded James Butler for not finding "a suitable substitute for Jacobean lexis" (even though the play is not set during the reign of either British King called James) and found only "moments to enjoy here – Paul L Martin’s Nimbus (a dead ringer for Nursie) steals most scenes, and David Shuker plays the idiot soldier Crimbo with gusto." British Theatre Guide dismissed it all as "Mildly amusing" although for The List it was a "charming play" as with The Scotsman, who grudgingly admitted it was "not totally lacking in charm" with some "some nice, witty observations here, but it lacks the substance to leave its mark." The substance is there - in the story under the comic style - but perhaps the critics are the last people we can expect to notice it...