The absurdities of dogma

Noonday Demons – Rough Haired Pointer @ King’s Head Theatre, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

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.

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Lovett’s Pies: Enjoyable but with some questionable content

Lovett + Todd – Another Soup @ King’s Head Theatre, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

One of the more intriguing aspects of fiction is how the creation of a make-believe world with fully-formed characters is enough to tempt audiences and artists alike into constantly wishing to re-enter that world and find out more about the part of the character’s life that exists just out of sight of the viewer. A key marker is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, with the implication being that it fills in the pre-story of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester. There are many more stories in this vein that take us right up to the present with The Meursault Investigation which reframes Camus’ The Outsider through the brother of the eponymous outsider of the title.

However as post-modernity and a self-reflexive irony envelops our culture, we have seen the focus change from adding to the original to reworking the source material so that it is framed in possibilities that would seem absurd to the original authors. Poor Jane Austen has suffered greatly at the hands of others. Indignities heaped upon her characters. Like murder mysteries? Like Pride and Prejudice? Well, try Death in Pemberley! Love zombies? Love Austen? You’ll love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!

That is not to imply that there is anything wrong with this. Quite the contrary, in part this is just a conscious acknowledgement of what has been going on for centuries. Playwrights, novelists, storytellers are continually retelling the same stories through different prisms. This was brought home watching the Oresteia and discovering that the events set in motion by the return of Orestes are mirrored with startling similarity in Hamlet’s return to Elsinore.

The advantages are clear; by using an existing text, you can trade off brand recognition to attract an audience and you avoid the accusation of plagiarism because it is implicit in the process. Yet it comes weighted with great risk; audiences are interested in part because they are emotionally invested in the original characters. Toy with their emotions at great peril.

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Get your fix of immersive theatre and be hooked

Trainspotting – In Your Face Theatre @ King’s Head Theatre, until 11 April 2015 (tickets)

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting has proved to be a surprisingly durable and versatile work. In its original incarnation as a novel it stands comparison with the neglected masterpiece Last Exit To Gavin Ross as Mark Renton (credit: Christopher Tribble)Brooklyn, and it does so because Welsh matches Hubert Selby Jr’s ability to capture the vernacular of the community it speaks for so from amidst the grotesque surrealism of the imagary a harrowing realism emerges.

Its vitality has made it the perfect fodder for stage and screen. With Danny Boyle at the helm, the film exploded off the screen, underpinned by a pulsating soundtrack and electric performances that encapsulated hedonistic spirit of people that knew change was in the air after almost two decades of Conservative rule.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, and certainly appropriately, In Your Face’s production began life at the Edinburgh Festival and the constraints of performing there might explain the 65 minute running time, which is really only just enough time to do justice to the world Welsh created. However Harry Gibson has done an exemplary job in adapting Trainspotting.

Rather than force the whole plot into an hour, Gibson has tightly focused the work around Renton’s journey towards ditching the skag. Other characters interweave in this story and the main beneficiary is in lifting Tommy Laurence so he becomes a central character; in this world, where scales play such a critical role, there must always be balance and so with Renton’s emancipation must come Tommy’s enslavement.

Sickboy (Neil Pendlenton) and Renton (Credit: Christopher Tribble)Fans of the film may complain that Begbie is sidelined by these changes but in this immersive staging a little of Chris Dennis’ Begbie goes an awfully long way. It is hard to believe that anyone could get close to Robert Carlyle’s psychopathic creation but Dennis has an added advantage – audience members at which to channel his malice. Even understanding the rules and structure of theatre there were moments when Begbie broke the fourth wall and became a terrifyingly real manifestation in a manner Boyle’s film could never have achieved.

In Your Face have produced an immersive experience that puts to shame many theatre companies working in a similar field; they have not found it necessary to scope out abandoned factories, railway tunnels or old department stores to create their world, rather they have transformed the King’s Head into the down-at-heel world of early 90’s Leith and trusted in their ability to take the audience with them.

We know we are in a theatre and the set is just a representation of a location – we don’t need elaborate sensory experiences to make us believe we are somewhere else, that is what we use our imaginations for – but from the moment we enter to a glowstick-raving cast gurning maniacally to Born Slippy.Nuxx, Ebenezer Goode and Right on Time through to the heartbreaking candlelit ending we are completely immersed in the world they have created.

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IMG_4060 These are courtesy of Rocco Redondo.

The play where everybody is somebody and anybody is nobody.

The Diary of a Nobody – Rough Haired Pointer @ King’s Head Theatre, until 14 February (Tickets)

It feels appropriate that The Diary of a Nobody should kick off the new King’s Head Theatre season in January. For how many nibs have been sharpened, fresh pages turned and inner-most thoughts committed to paper since the start of the year? And how many, begun with the best of intentions, are already gathering an unholy combination of dust and regret?

That so many are abandoned is hardly surprising, for it takes a rare blend of solipsism and dedication to commit to the task of capturing your thoughts for posterity. The jeu d’esprit of the professional raconteur is a rare talent, and even celebrated diarists of the stature of Alan Clarke or Christopher Isherwood can be heavy going if read cover to cover.

Literary triumphs recognise the average diary writer is nothing like these people; rather they prick, with considerable acuity, the pomposity of the English middle classes. In modern times we have the brilliance of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, whose sense of his own self-importance is drolly sent-up in his teenage obsession with Malcolm Muggeridge. The Victorians, who certainly knew a thing or two about pomposity, had one Charles Pooter of the The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway.

The creation of George and Weedon Grossmith, Pooter is a character that grew larger than the book that contained him (a fact that would have pleased him greatly if he didn’t stop to find out why). To be ‘Pooterish’ is to have a vastly inflated sense of one’s own importance and to take oneself far too seriously. In today’s world of internet blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook sharing, it is a word that has more relevance than ever before (and yes, Civilian Theatre recognises that ‘glass houses’ and ‘stones’ comes to mind here).

Rough Haired Pointer has taken on the difficult task of adapting the wonderful comic novel, The Diary of a Nobody – the lasting chronicle of Charles Pooter, his family, friends and servants. They do so with energetic vigour and considerable panache, as four actors take it upon themselves to play 45 characters across 100 minutes in a space with nowhere near enough room to swing a cat.

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Paved with good intentions

Autobahn – The King’s Head Theatre, until  20 September 2014

Filed by our roving reviewer, Emily Howe

Currently running at the Kings Head Theatre in London, Savio(u)r presents the professional UK premiere of Neil LaBute’s Autobahn. Set on the highways of America, this is a series of seven vignettes, each taking place in the front seats of a car. A combination of monologues and duologues, the scenes are unrelated to each other in their narratives and characters, but where they overlap is in their structure. With each, the audience must autobahn 1spend a few minutes detecting what relationship the characters bear to each other and what situation we are intruding on; then as the scene plays out, we see the layers gradually unfold, and slowly realise that – in many of the scenes – the situation is not quite as clear-cut as it may initially have seemed.

Zoe Swenson-Graham, Tom Slatter, Henry Everett and Sharon Maughan in Autobahn, King's Head Theatre - (c) Scott RylanderAll seven scenes were performed by just four actors, so there was a fair amount of multi-roling. This worked very well, and I enjoyed seeing the same faces tackle vastly different characters and styles. In a play of this style – where movement is minimal and the actors are facing out to the audience for the duration of the scenes – the challenge for the actors is that there is nowhere for them to hide, as we can identify every thought-change that crosses their faces. Therefore, the performances, character development, and clarity of sub-text need to be spot-on. All of the actors rose to this challenge and the performances were truthful, engaging, and often darkly funny. Particular mention should go to Zoë Swenson-Graham who shone in each of her four very different characters.

The staging was simple but effective. The front half of a car was the main focus on stage, with a large screen behind showing a film of the varying roads and views where the scenes were taking place. A soundscape during each scene added to the atmosphere.

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