Watching Rough Haired Pointer revive Peter Barnes’ 1969 play, Noonday Demons, Civilian Theatre could not help but reflect on the problems that arise from knowing a theatre company’s past work. Civilian Theatre is a recent convert to the charms of the company, which occurred after being captivated by their sharp, ingenious and extremely funny adaptation of The Diary of a Nobody. It was such a highly stylised work, both in Karina Nakaninsky’s set and costume design and also in the clearly tight-knit ensemble performances of the cast, that an impression was left of a company with a clear, visual identity.
As a result it proved disconcerting to enter the King’s Head Theatre and be presented with a sparse set drenched in a hazy, warm light that very much suggests a barren cave in a distant desert. Equally the sight of Jordan Mallory-Skinner as a bearded, dishevelled monk teetering on the brink of, or possibly have long having lost his grip on, sanity standing in front of a totemic mound of human dung jarred with my last sight of him playing the charming, if long-suffering, Mrs Pooter.
That these feelings arose is clearly not the fault of the company and should not have a bearing on Noonday Demons. Yet it is right to mention them as they may help to explain why, despite fitfully exploding into life, the production never quite manages to convince.
This is the second of Barnes’ earlier work to be restaged in the space of the year. The Jamie Lloyd-directed The Ruling Class had the distinct advantage of being able to call upon the A-list talent of James McAvoy to shift tickets and, looking around the auditorium, the King’s Head Theatre illustrates the current appeal of the playwright without a star name attached.
Barnes is a fascinating writer, capable of highly inventive scenarios that intrigue, but he frustrates as much as he satisfies. Over the course of an excessive 2½hr running time, The Ruling Class proved itself flabby and rather dull. The humour disappeared entirely for large sections, and it was only thanks to the explosive energy of Mr McAvoy’ brilliant lead performance that the production avoided disaster. Thankfully Noonday Demons is far shorter, and contains a wonderful premise of two saints battling for control of a cave in which to spend their hermetic isolation, the rivalry spiralling absurdly into the extremes as they battle to demonstrate they are the most devoted.
Yet over the course of 90 minutes the play fails to evolve, and eventually it struggles to escape limitations it sets itself. The spiral structure of increasing absurdity leads only to diminishing returns on the set-up, and saps the energy if not the spirit. There are some surreal moments, and the left-field ending hints of the play it could have been, but ultimately it feels that what Barnes needed more than anything was a tough-minded editor that could sort the wheat from the chaff.
At times we are in the presence of a very fine playwright. The sparky, religion-fuelled dialogues between St Eusebius (Jordan Mallory-Skinner) and St Pior (Jake Curran) are a treat. The rapid-fire exchanges are delivered with the increasing fervour and the sanctimonious condescension of the true religious zealot who could not imagine anyone challenging the strength of their belief.
These parts show Mr Mallory-Skinner and Mr Curran at their finest. It was evident in The Diary of a Nobody that they were a formidable comedy duo, and their on-stage dynamic had a complete naturalness that hinted at long forged bonds leading to a complete trust in the other’s action. This connection, generated by the arrival of St Pior, gives the play the spark it desperately needed. Mr Curran appears entirely at home in the guise of an emaciated, hermetic figure; his voice takes on the calm tones of the truly righteous but his eyes often have the slight-wild glint that suggest a man on the verge of a transcendent mania.
His entrance is a welcome relief as, fine actor he may be, Mr Mallory-Skinner had been forced to contend with an over-written and over-long 45-min opening monologue. He acquits himself well but never quite convinces in his portrayal of a man who has spent 13 years in a cave, and who occasionally transforms into a demon taking the form of a 20th century comedian with a rather less holy outlook. However once given the opportunity to take energy from another character, Mr Mallory Skinner improves markedly and the passionate intensity is a strong counter to Mr Curran’s serene presence.
It is by no means a disastrous production and it rarely stops being likeable. However it is ultimately a flawed play that needed further editing to bring the sharp wit and caustic commentary on the unyielding, dogmatic nature of religion into focus. Despite being very capable and blessed with a real comic verve, I am unconvinced that Rough Haired Pointer were necessarily the right theatre company to take on this particular work. A slight misstep perhaps, but not critical, and one hopes that up-and-coming company learn as much from small failures as they do major successes. It is to be applauded that they are willing to take on work that brings them outside their comfort zone and it is likely they will return stronger for the experience.
A brief snippet from Rough Haired Pointer’s production that gives some idea of the curious nature of Peter Barnes play