I think I first started paying attention to the Canadian actress Meredith MacNeill when I forced myself to sit through the Brit comedy flick Confetti. The review aggregate sites rate it at about six-out-of-ten, and I think that’s fair enough… but with the cast they had, you’d be forgiven for expecting a much higher rating. Jessica Hynes, Martin Freeman, Stephen Mangan, Robert Webb, Olivia Colman, Julia Davis…. that’s a solid Britcom All Stars line-up right there… drawing from Spaced, Green Wing, Peep Show, The Office, and Nighty Night. The concept of three couples competing to win a dream home, by entering a bridal magazines competition to find the “Most Original Wedding” is pretty solid. Unfortunately, I’ve never been a big fan of semi-improvised mockumentaries, so I can’t help feeling that this DVD would make a useful rough draft for a really great scripted comedy… but I doubt you could get the same cast to go back for another swing at it, sadly.
It’s a shame because there are so many story strands that are simply left to fray in the wind, and some very brave and funny performances, which go to waste amongst all the clutter. The whole way through I was rooting for the Tennis Couple (Mangan/MacNeill) to win it. Not only because they were the funniest, but also because their ceremony was the most genuinely original and bizarre. It was like a piece of devised theatre! I think their characters had the most interesting arcs, and the best jokes… the self-deprecating sub-plot about MacNeill needing a nose job before the big day was especially admirable on her part… and would get much more play in my hypothetical re-draft of the original. Nevertheless, Hynes and Freeman make such a sweet on-screen couple, and their segments have such emotional weight to them, they could easily have carried a rom-com all on their own.
Mangan and MacNeill also crop up, separately, in Annie Griffin‘s Festival (2005). It’s probably not fair to compare the two, but Griffin’s work also seems to be semi-improvised, even if it isn’t… the difference being that she can encourage her cast to bring a natural flow and energy to their performances, but also knows how to tell compelling stories, which deviate in strange and dark ways. Overall, it just makes for a more satisfying experience, even though the “resolution” to her characters’ arcs are often equally ambiguous. In this tale of various performers, on vastly different rungs of the success ladder, plying their “Art” at the Edinburgh Festival, MacNeill is part of an experimental Canadian theatre troupe. The trio spend much of the film looking either stoned or jet-lagged, but it’s great to see them pull it together for their big performance… it would have been easy to get cheap chuckles out of them being as dopey on-stage as they are off it, but they (and Griffin) clearly take their craft seriously, and it almost made me wish I was there in the theatre to experience it myself.
Most recently, MacNeill was a member of the ManStrokeWoman cast. At first I avoided this sketch show, because it seemed too tightly focussed on the dating woes of thirty-something urbanites… which was deliberate on the part of the writers and producers, but I’m not sure it was to their credit… but after picking up the DVDs cheap, and giving the show a chance, I found there was a lot there to enjoy. Still a little too reliant on catchphrases and running gags for my liking, but with such a spirited and talented cast, it’s hard to be too curmudgeonly about it. My favourite MacNeill “runner”, for rather obvious reasons, was the one where she and Nick Frost play a couple experimenting with role-playing… the set-up involves MacNeill entering the bedroom in a succession of sexy costumes, and then taking the role she’s playing far too seriously… such as when her “nurse” diagnoses Frost’s “patient” with cancer. “Is it… naughty cancer?”, he asks hopefully. No. No, it’s not.
I’m not sure what first prompted MacNeill to come to our shores, but I’m very grateful that she did… it’s just a bummer that she doesn’t seem to have found a “breakout” role yet. I’d happily watch (or write for) a sitcom with her in the lead role, but I accept that there may be others out there who don’t share my passion for crazy and cartoony comediennes. That said, she did put in a decent dramatic turn as the girlfriend of a suspected terrorist, in the meat-headed military drama Ultimate Force… and she picked up very good notices for her starring role in a play called Trance. In fact Time Out: London called her performance “the best thing about the production… there’s a lovely, believable contrast between her gawky off-duty persona, bumbling towards self-assertion, and the authority of her professional identity. The contrast serves the play well.”