Brighton Fringe 2012
Nothing is as it seems in this absurdist comedy, written and directed by Andrew King. It’s worth a look, but it’s also enough to make your head spin.
A cover version of ‘Red Red Wine’ plays in the living room of a Victorian terraced house. The stage is half the room, with boarded up windows for a backdrop. The visual starting point is a table on which sits a laptop and a bottle of red wine, and four stools. The small area feels crammed if not a little claustrophobic, with the actors awkwardly navigating shreds of available space. The audience take up the other half of the room, just yards from the action. There is a feeling of tension and of confrontation between the audience and the actors that puts you slightly on edge. This works in King’s favour, making his attempts to shock and mystify all the more potent and extreme.
The Toys in Blood company make up a cast of five nameless characters: the sculptor father, the realist mother who ‘dabbles’, the son, a business magnate, and the daughter, ‘a lady who lunches’, but the relationship between them all is highly ambiguous. Sandra Ventris gives the strongest performance in her role as the mother, holding the play together well. Roger Mason, as the father, is suitably more restrained, inhabiting his role with ease. Nathalie Hunter and King are weaker in their performances, lacking a certain degree of subtlety. Troy Webb, doing his very best Lily Savage impression as the housekeeper/auntie with the shady past, baffles and delights at the same time. Webb succeeds in making a caricature out of a part which is mostly geared towards creating comedy.
King is successful in how he plays around with time. It lacks all chronology here but is still cyclical. Act one takes place mostly in one evening – presumably in the present day – in which dinner is had by the two couples and a lot of wine is drunk. Act two skips back in time to two weeks prior to Act one, then some months before that, before returning to the main scene of the evening in Act one. We then jump to the scene prior to the opening evening’s excesses. The final scene takes us back in time four years to an event that is alluded to in Act one. Although it sounds confusing, each member of the audience is given a sheet of paper beforehand, outlining the scene changes and time narrative, albeit in a rather cryptic manner.
Though entertaining, King’s brainchild is a showy, rather pretentious piece of theatre. It’s not unheard of for absurdist drama to be seen as such by the very nature of its genre. The dialogue can be almost devoid of meaning and yet still work. But here the language often feels self-conscious, or consciously trying to be clever. I’m on the fence as to whether most of it’s just pseudo-intellectual psychobabble or if the dialogue has actual merit. The pace of the action is quick; the dialogue quicker, so you have to keep up. The confrontational effect of King’s thirty second, quick-fire tirade against socialism in his role as the ‘enigmatic business impresario’ when sitting in the front row is a bit like verbal whiplash. This is perhaps the point, but there is no time to take it in. There are philosophical flights, talks on the wonders/evils of capitalism and consumerism, but does not include, as an eloquent partner, silence. The odd Pinteresque pause certainly wouldn’t come amiss, or even just a pause for breath. The script would surely benefit from a little streamlining – the characters would say more if they actually said less. However, there are gabs and puns aplenty. The ribaldry always seems to work and the wordplay often demonstrates wit and sparkle.
It’s hard to know what to make of this production. Whether or not it succeeds as absurdist theatre depends on what the viewer expects to glean from such a setup, but it’s a thought-provoking challenge nonetheless, and that in itself is a recommendation.