Camden Fringe 2011
Hamster Town tells the story of a divorced man prevented from seeing his daughter who takes refuge in loving a pet hamster. Located somewhere between Jackanory and a Ballardesque nightmare, Hamster Town is an intriguing piece that flirts with obsession but returns to love.
On a simple set with just a few hamster-based props, (familiar to those of us who have had one of the little critters), Ralfe mainly uses his body and voice to set the scene. Directly addressing the audience as the character Darren, he tells the story of what happened at this seminal point in his life.
In despair at the withholding of his daughter’s visits Darren wanders the streets, gets caught in a terrible storm and ends up outside a pet shop. All goes still as he gazes inside at what one guesses is a hamster. He returns the next day to buy it and their relationship begins.
But slowly, the increasing connection Darren feels for the hamster mutates into something more unhinged. He loses his job and retreats into an inner fantasyland with the creature. As his love veers into obsession, I was reminded of the brilliant televised play Home, adapted from the J G Ballard short story The Enormous Space. But where ‘Home’ descended wholeheartedly into claustrophobic nightmare, Hamster Town stays on the periphery, slightly holding back. It never becomes quite as transgressive as it threatens to.
At one point Darren is sitting in front of the telly and ‘makes a move’ on the cage. You could have heard a pin drop as he edged closer and slowly stroked the bars. But once he had extracted the plastic tubes to reveal the small, round holes that lead directly into the cage, my imagination ran riot and I absolutely dreaded what he was going to do next. Whatever it was, it would surely take a comic genius to carry it off. This may have accounted for our nervous silence. But thankfully he didn’t go there. Ralfe could have pushed himself further, but ultimately the joys of this piece are found elsewhere.
David Ralfe gives a splendid physical and vocal performance as he creates ‘Hamster Town’. He can obviously do the mime work, but the play really comes to life not in the moments of well-performed, but sometimes overlong miming (getting-soaked-in-the-rain mime, looking-through-a-window mime etc) but in the more unexpected, exultant moments of free association. At one point he goes wild with a tape measure, describing in ever increasing tones of ecstasy and delight the wonders of hamster accessories. There is a lot of humour here and Ralfe managed to make our ‘quietly appreciative’ audience laugh out loud.
As the charting of an emotional journey into the underworld (and back), Hamster Town doesn’t quite hit the mark sometimes and is a little uneven, but as Ralfe’s professional debut it is overflowing with promise and bravura. What it lacked in the danger department, it more than made up for in emotional punch. The end is particularly good; bringing the play firmly back into the light with a simple, swift and wordless power that is very moving. You don’t have to be a parent to enjoy this, or a hamster owner. Ralfe takes us on a worthwhile journey, which although a little uneven at times, does, as they say, ‘bring it home’. If there is one thing that a spell at the Lecoq School trains you to do – it is to be on that stage for a good reason. And he was.