Brighton Fringe 2023
Genre: Absurd Theatre, Dark Comedy, Experimental, Fringe Theatre, Improvised Theatre, Interactive, New Writing, Physical Comedy, Physical Theatre, Satire, Slapstick Comedy, Storytelling, Surrealism, Theatre
Venue: The Rotunda Theatre: Bubble
Festival: Brighton Fringe
Human Experiment was one of those shows that certainly defy categorisation but still remain accessible, funny and understandable – understandable ? well let’s not go too far and spoil the mystery. It’s physically masterful, witty and simply fascinating.
The atmosphere of Human Experiment is strong and consistent throughout: sinister, brooding, threatening and fascinating. It never loses its touch over the whole hour.
To properly get across the feel of it though a digression into my personal pet ownership is necessary.
We have two young rescue cats, Blosssom and Buttercup. They hang out together, two near identical faces staring at you while you watch TV, until their hanging out metamorphoses into Cat Fight Club, Cat Chase Club, then they’re gone, disparu, unseen. Then at 4.30am, sigh…
These two Monkions on the stage are rather like our cats, although more articulate. One minute cooperating, one minute savagely different, one minute staring, another minute cajoling and explaining. Their expressions and their voices change from, from role to role, while the shrouded body that is (or was?) Benedict Cumberbatch lies motionless on the stage. But they’re always alert, on the look-out, ready to respond to the slightest cue.
It’s physical comedy throughout – expressions, movements, voices. It’s in the moment, improvised and still so very tightly executed. The sound of a plane rumbling overhead penetrates the geodesic venue and is knitted into the dialogue. They put the surreal into quirk and quirk into surreal, but they are always aware. “A bit surreal for you sir” riffs Chief Monkion, when climbing into the audience, but she doesn’t mean it.
They (the Monkions) want our help with ol’ Cumberbatch – he doesn’t seem to be moving much.
The show starts with these two characters having an argument, Chief (I just call her that) Monkion asserts her authority over her assistant but it’s a relationship that develops, in its own way, as the show moves on.
Then, one of the evenings first set pieces involves Chief Monkion and a set of Russian dolls. It’s measured, it’s precise in every expression and movement and it’s very, very funny, and the audience is beginning to rock with laughter, in a slightly uneasy way, because it is still quite dark humour with this pervasive atmosphere throughout.
Audience participation is demanded (you can opt out by the way) with smiling cajolery and a slight aura of threat. And this is very funny too.
Our performance involved a small but smelly sock – yours may have something different. Maybe yours will rouse Cumberbatch? – our performance didn’t but I wouldn’t rule anything out in the future.
Effective Cumberbatch revival skills are not much in evidence, the Monkions even spook themselves out skittering back with the high pitched mewling language they affect in times of stress.
I hope you get the picture, or at least some kaleidoscopic kind of a sense of what this terrific production is about. Superb, amazing, so funny: these are all words which a Monkion would not understand and would reject out of hand while staring at you in a slightly menacing way.
They sing, they dance, they certainly entertain.
There’s possibly a minute or two at the beginning of the show when you think, what have I got myself into, is this a dour Beckett play gone wrong, but that slight discomfort is quickly, wonderfully, comprehensively dispelled.
They’re not afraid to take risks, to improvise in the moment without losing the atmosphere and tenure of the narrative they are performing.
There is a whole bag of words like bonkers, bizarre, surreal from which you could pluck all and any to describe this show, and you still wouldn’t really get the strong muscular feel of it. It really is a unique piece of work that defies explanation while still being very satisfying to see. The thing about good physical performance is that you are drawn into each second of each action and word – there’s always something interesting and of import going on.
Do go and see it. You owe it to the Monkions. You owe it to Cumberbatch. You owe it to yourself.