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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The Ruling Farce

The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios, until 11 April 2015 (Tickets

James McAvoy and Kathryn Drysdale in The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios. Credit: Jonas Persson

It is entirely possible that finance for this revival of Peter Barnes’ satire of the British class system was raised purely on the back of a one-sentence pitch: ‘enter James McAvoy riding a unicycle whilst wearing white underpants’.

It may well have been a tough sell otherwise, as The Ruling Class acts as an exemplar of the potential perils of reviving a near-forgotten play. Staged in 1968 it would have appeared as a topical satire that referenced the ideals of the summer of love and the pressures being place on the established elites by the social revolutions that rippled through the decade. Barnes’ sets an aristocratic establishment against the more hippyish virtues of McAvoy’s ‘JC’ – who has a particular fascination in bonding the pleasures of the spiritual and physical realms.

Credit: Jonas PerssonHowever by 2014 – with society bended to fit the tyranny of the financial markets and the ideals of the free-spirited long broken by an advertising industry that learnt it could get fat by selling homogenised difference – this world is almost unrecognisable from the one we ended living in.

While a play does not need to be relevant to be enjoyed, one must question why it has never seen a major revival since the Leeds Playhouse in 1983.  Given the canny programming of Jamie Lloyd’s critically and commercially successful Trafalgar Transformed seasons up to this point, it does seem like a curious choice.

However it turns out the play isn’t without interest. Whilst it is creaky and overlong – two and a half hours plus an interval for a satirical comedy? – there are several quite unexpected tonal shifts that means you are never quite sure what is going to come next.

I certainly was unprepared for a play from 1968 to open with a quite gruesome death by way of auto-erotic asphyxiation misadventure. Equally the fact that it suddenly breaks into vaudevillian song and dance routines for no discernible reason is baffling and pleasing in equal measure.

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