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Edinburgh Fringe 2009

The Doubtful Guest


Venue: The Traverse


Low Down

 Hoi Polloi’s new show is based on a children’s picture book by the cult illustrator, Edward Gorey about an unexpected guest who comes to stay in a large country house, scaring the living daylights out of the family who live there and wreaking mayhem. A wonderfully, absurd bit of nonsense.


Hoipolloi work with whimsy and with imagination to create wild and wonderful new worlds. This latest show is no exception. Edward Gorey, an American cult author and illustrator wrote books of dark nonsense for children. The Doubtful Guest is based on his book of the same title, and is not only an adaptation of the book but a play within a play as the Bishops act out their story. Hoipolloi expand the book’s 14 rhyming couplets into an hour and a half of rollicking good fun and laughter.

Ostensibly, the show is about the Bishops, a family of five living in a large country house whose staid domesticity is disrupted when an unexpected and wholly unwelcome guest turns up. “When they answered the bell on that wild winter night, There was no one expected – and no one in sight”. The guest is not a person but a strange fantastical beast, somewhere between meercat and penguin with a long beaky nose, stripey scarf and white canvas shoes who wanders silently through the house, eating the crockery, depositing books from the library in the pond and lurking outside rooms.

The guest strikes fear into the rather fearful Bishop family. The play flirts with whether the fear is justified or the overwrought zenophobia of an insular and inward looking family. How real is the creature? How real the fears?

Meanwhile on stage, Hoipolloi play with the form. The performers are a Victorian family putting on a stagey am-dram, there are unexplained crashes off stage which delay the start to the consternation of the Bishops, the characters feel bound to explain to us why they are doing what they are doing. As the family unravels in the face of the stranger so the sleight of hand that is theatre unravels in the skilled hands of Hoipolloi.

Shon Dale-Jones and Stephanie Muller have taken the pictures off the page and created a pastiche Victoriana so visually quaint and stylised that it pays homage to the illustrations.

It’s a well done and professionally enacted piece of theatre – but one that left me feeling as I do when I’ve been to a tapas bar, that I’d eaten a lot but was still hungry.