AMAZING FEATS OF LONELINESS
BY ALEXANDER DEFERT
DO YOU WANT SOME JAMMY RINGS?
Marmite. Yes you read that right, and no I haven't gone bananas. Not only is Marmite a delicious spread on crumpets (fight me), but it's an accurate summary of CellarDoor's latest theatrical extravaganza. You're either gonna love it or you're gonna hate it. It might also taste good on toast but I can't confirm that last one as I haven't tried it.
Did I love it? No. Did I hate it? Well...also no. Am I immediately contradicting my previous paragraph? You betcha. Now here's why:
I liked this play a lot. As an academic play it probes some deep and searching questions, for those paying attention, about the purpose of theatre itself as a relevant art form. Not only is this a deeply important question for modern theatre to address in the wake of Television's soft dominion over performance, but it is also one with an extremely satisfying intellectual ending. But therein lies its biggest problem. The satisfaction is nearly entirely intellectual, with the story itself wobbling clumsily from comedic anecdote to comedic anecdote before finally taking an extremely left field jerk into attempted tragedy. The practical upshot of this is that those audience members expecting a less cerebral experience are going to walk away confused, a feeling not helped by some extremely baffling sequences (more on those later) and an unbalanced second act which goes on about 20 minutes too long. On the other hand, if you're going to watch theatre expecting not to engage your brain then you deserve everything you get. Which is sort of the point the play makes really; that theatre is for deep questions. For fluff and explosions, go and watch the endless 'Transformers' movies.
The story follows the eponymous Gant and his theatre troupe, as they explore two tales of loneliness encountered by Gant in his travels around the world. These stories are absolutely hilarious and the performances of the actors are near flawless, encompassing every range of humour from the physical to the sarcastic. In fact they are so extraordinary that I couldn't pick a specific actor to single out for praise. So instead I'm going to single out each one of them (don't worry, there's only four of them)!
Andrew Simpson damn near stole the entire show. His outrageous antics and commanding display of expertly precise insanity led nearly all of the show's funniest and most memorable moments. In particular his portrayal of the bizarrely pearl-philic prince left the audience in near tears of hysterics as he played up an accent worthy of Sacha Baron-Cohen. Such a performance would be impossible however without the equally impressive turns of Thomy Lawson and Dylan Sutcliffe. Often acting as the straight man to Simpson, Lawson and Sutcliffe managed to weave together moments of eloquent sarcasm, deep sensitivity and buoyant outrage into layered and breathtaking performances. In Lawson's talented hands, quiet sarcasm became a devastating comedic weapon which she wielded to great effect. She chose her moments perfectly and performed them flawlessly. In similar vein Sutcliffe greatly impressed as the borderline offensive Ranjit the Uncomplicated, taking a deliberate caricature of racism and elevating it into a blend of biting satire and roar-inducing humour. Whilst his louder moments in the first act rang a little hollow in comparison to Simpson's, and he was undeniably the weakest of the actors on stage, in the second act his portrayal of frustrated rage was beyond reproach. The entire play's pay off was dependent on the platform of tension perfectly built by Sutcliffe, and he did not disappoint in its creation. Meanwhile, Akshay Khanna as 'Edward Gant' played the audience like a violin in his capacity as the storytelling ingenue. His early anonymity as essentially a plot device was done well, if somewhat perfunctorily, but it was the final ten minutes where he came to the fore, delivering a heart-rending display of misery, regret and (roll credits) loneliness that will live long in the memory of all those who attended.
Although the play would have benefited from a more spacious venue (The Alma Tavern's modest stage often seeming to suffocate the bounding excitement and soaring rhetoric of the actors), the atmosphere was nonetheless beautifully well crafted by the incredible stage design and costuming of the production. Enormous credit must thus go to the entire production team (in particular the work of Hiranya Griffith-Unnys, who has again demonstrated her unmatched command of aesthetic creation) as well as the musical ensemble commanded by the incredible, fourth wall breaking Isaac Lawrence-Thompson and his cheery accordion (I love an accordion). Playing improvised, period appropriate music for an hour and a half is tough enough, never mind doing so in a way that kept the audience totally engaged seemingly without mistake.
But, and it is a big but, 'Gant' has some deep lying flaws. Apart from the prior mentioned limitations caused by the script's own weaknesses, 'Gant' contained quite a few moments of jarring nonsense and borderline offensive moments. Now, I don't mean the more provocative humour (which I adored). Rather, it was the frustratingly pointless moments (such as a particularly egregious 'dancing bears' sequence which added nothing to the plot and was, frankly, extremely tedious) that grated me the wrong way. They were simply too crass and on the nail; utterly beneath the talents of those forced to create them. These instances peppered the otherwise excellent play like a sprinkling of unwanted onions on a pepperoni pizza. They stuck in the mouth and dampened the flavour that the prodigiously talented director, Teja Boocock, had otherwise cooked to beyond reproach. Perhaps they were unavoidable, with a storm of circumstances (venue, script and budget) undermining any attempt to rescue them, but I can only comment on what was there, not what could have been, and what was presented too often soured the production.
CellarDoor, and Boocock, have consistently demonstrated their undeniable talent and, more importantly, their refusal to play it safe. They push artistic boundaries without being contrived or offensive and have gained a dedicated fan in me as a result. However, for all its ambition, their latest venture is inferior to the standards they have set for themselves. It's brilliant, and interesting, but is also a deeply frustrating experience to sit through, with its minor flaws conspiring to unravel the play as a whole. They don't succeed, and the play is still an incredible feat, but its cacophonous nature renders its artistry a lonely figure in a maelstrom of confusion.