FringeReview UK 2023
There’s surprises here you’ll discover. A superb landmark in Mark Daniels’ gifted exploration of Absurdism’s relevance. This isn’t deadly theatre, it’s quietly lethal to deathly assumptions everywhere. See it.
Sam: Helder Fernandes (Our Generation / The National Theatre)
AJ / Guardian / Meta: Nkhanise Phiri (The Trial Of Josie K / The Unicorn Theatre)
Janet / BBC / a dictionary: Anya Sayadian (Ted Lasso / Apple TV)
Tom / Wikipedia / Daily Mail: Ben Keenan
Gabriel / Twitter / a tuffet: Jacob Lovick
Director: Edwina Strobl
Writer: Mark Daniels
Lead producer: Hannah Turk
Technical Stage Manager: Alex Garfath
Illustrator: Lele Saa (poster and visuals credit to Lele Saa)
Till June 25th
“To be or not to be… that is the question. Or is it?…” Sam (Helder Fernandes) has another. “Do mice like cheese?”
But as we plough further into the things we ask questions of and believe, is it cheese without the mouse, like Hamlet without the prince? Mark Daniels’ Cheesy Cheesy Catchy Mousey directed by Edwina Strobl at the Camden People’s Theatre opens briefly till 25th June. Keep your mobiles on, if silent. And beware volunteering for a free drink in the interval. You’ll enjoy it too much.
If you’ve any liking, let alone love for the absurd, this is for you. Ionesco though, it ain’t. Or… is it? Some underestimate the politics inherent in the topicality of the original Absurdists. Great productions bring these out.
Daniels is an absurdist on a mission. His last work, Coronavirus – A Great British Farce, toured to acclaim in 2021. He references contemporary politicians on occasion (less so here) and certainly contemporary media. That’s not to say he’s so overtly political as to damage the envelope of absurdism. But he lays mice-traps for politics and you’ll love the snap! If you don’t why are you reading?
Even so… In exploring this ever-darkening five-hander though, Daniels refuses the easy escapes of political rage expanded to billionaire media, because the effect of it is far more telling.
Fernandes is an agon full of querulous hunch, and of course absolutely straight. His angst is a classical pose of the man resisting Ionesco’s rhinoceri, say. He’s in need of a guide for the perplexed. But each guide swivels with information predicated on its own search engines, mechanical or human, designed to skew a simple question into epistological nightmare. Fernandes brings a darkness too, a twitchy slow edge of panic suffuses his performance.
Each time he asks a question specifically, someone appears, often in the guise of best friend AJ, mother Janet, their old PE Teacher who has a thing for Janet, Tom Richards who doesn’t want to be called Sir anymore; and incongruously, Cheesemonger who keeps complaining he’s been asked at the last minute, has no idea why this role exists. Pirandello’s never far away here, but Daniels refuses obvious labels. He threshes his own path. Labels that exist are signposts to another country.
Sam firsts asks his friend AJ (Nkhanise Phiri) who in Phiri’s boppy bendy and joyous performance is the voice of hedonistic unreason and sometimes just the shrug of Everyperson. Um, well different cheeses? “Fondue’s next level cheese, the mouse’s brain just can’t compute it.” There’s many such gags, the language consistently funny, occasionally furious.
What’s the fuss AJ asks? Phiri’s also Meta later on, but that’s for the info-fugue we’re cluster-bucked with. Phiri’s brilliant quirkiness, balletic and rubbery, poised and just occasionally plangent, means they’re someone to look out for.
And wait for the Spidersuit, indeed many costume changes highlighting the quality of this production. It’s well-founded and the theatre itself equipped to present it.
Janet (Anya Sayadian) should provide a voice of calm, but can’t resist pointing out she played Ophelia at the Globe, and there’s this Globe performance she didn’t actually act in but it reminds her of this… Later on Sayadian’s BBC2 and a dictionary, the conventional ordered response to questions. Fourth walls shatter out in Daniels here, until we get to the Fifth, and …. By now you’ll realise why your phones are on. And you vote. You’ll need to find out why.
Meanwhile Tom (Ben Keenan) morphs from ignorant PE teacher who knows nothing to Wikipedia, and morphs again into conspiracy-man, curated by the Mail. Daniels’ skill here lies in picking up a wisp of character and projecting from that a convincing trajectory for the mindset these people inhabit. Here is rampant conspiracy theory and every nasty you nightmared in as you delete your own account. Keenan enjoying his dumb role breaks out of it, extolling his own virtue in Improv. Again Pirandello’s Five Characters are wittily referenced, dismissed, until perhaps the end.
Cheesmonger himself Gabriel (Jacob Lovick) has a line in Scouse accents – it’s why he was hired he tells us. Like Keenan Lovick brings a nervy, simmering energy to his secondary parts, moving from bland to menace, particularly on his mirror-shades self as Twitter or – don’t ask why yet – a Tuffet.
What Daniels manages particularly is to craft just enough character for San’s plight to turn on sudden dark and shock (you’ll need to see why) twice. But by now each serpentine question of how information moulds us, how it’s controlled, is visited in the personal, Fernandes’ Sam the lightning rod, the Denmark born to set it right or not. There’s the skull of course. And cheese. Let’s start with that.
There’s surprises here you’ll discover. A landmark in Daniels’ gifted exploration of Absurdism’s relevance. This isn’t deadly theatre, it’s quietly lethal to deathly assumptions everywhere. Superb. See it.