I’d heard several positive reviews of this show from trusted friends before going to see it. It was by the National Theatre’s touring company. The pictures looked good. I liked the book. It held every promise of being great.
I didn’t love it though.
I liked moments, but as a whole, it just failed to excite or impress me. It had all the gimmicks and glitz of theatre but none of the magic.
The music that was deployed for impact during scene changes or mood settings was offensively loud and erratic and terrible, and I didn’t care whether it was supposed to signify something.
The acting style was the same old monotony of shouting every line quickly with no emotional honesty or breathing space, a real pet hate of mine and other theatre practitioners and theatre lovers that I know.
The cast were not at fault – let’s get that out of the way – the performances were slick, professional and disciplined throughout, and the ensemble carried off some physical sequences that were themselves impressive, for instance one in which one character slowed down and the rest sped up, which was executed brilliantly and conveyed exactly the feeling that the protagonist was describing (one the audience could clearly all relate to.)
Rather, what was completely not my cup of tea was most of the decisions the director had made. One massive problem I had with it was that it was constantly played for laughs. This really stole from the pure, unassuming pathos and subtlety of the book and turned it into more of a pantomime, both isolating the story’s original audience by subtracting one of its most fundamental winning qualities and, dare I say it, perhaps knowingly fleecing a widely popular piece of art by cashing in on the title while undermining its message.
While I’m on the topic of undermining the original message, (and when I say ‘message’, I mean the feeling, the tone, the incommunicable something that made the book great for those of us that it did – the book speaks for itself) there are some tropes I really didn’t care for, elements of theatre that always make me cringe, because they are dangerous and outdated. Let’s talk about Comedy Regionals.
I have been guilty myself, in naive years, of penning short plays and sketches that pander to the idea that regional accents are funny, and that it’s fine to reduce characters to being just that accent, and enforcing that Everything They Say Is Hilarious *Coughbecauseregionalsarethick*. [It’s the ‘cough’ part that’s dangerous and outdated, by the way.] I seem to have rammed something down your throat there, but that’s what the show does, and it’s not obvious enough to the producers that this is what they’re doing, and I’m pretty sure the guffawing members of the audience missed it too.
This idea is pretty much constantly brought to our attention in this show. Actors adhere to racial stereotypes – a point a friend of mine was more passionately disgruntled about, although personally I saw it as less significant as they each played a number of roles with a number of accents, although of course it was the stereotypical accents that were designed for the big laughs. Also, our protagonist had a habit of repeating certain words or concepts he had just heard, in exactly the voice he’d heard it in. Okay, fine, we might make such a show of trying to pronounce something exactly as we heard it in some instances, for example when learning foreign languages. And okay, fine, this boy has Asperger’s, and perhaps what we’re being told along with that people with Asperger’s may be uncomfortable with copious human contact (sometimes true) and that they are all geniuses (rarely true and not necessary) is that they are also fastidious with details when it comes to language. But these were the only moments in which he was so pronounced, and the working of the mouth over these new words was done in such a zealous way that it might as well have accompanied a wink and a nudge at the audience – who were seemingly his naughty schoolmates at the back of the class in these moments.
That was another point that worried me. This actor was a grown man. He was capable and intelligent and talented enough to be giving a fair portrayal of a much younger boy, with a very visible condition so unlike our established society norm. He was doing it well, and so, the audience were on his side. And this power is dangerous. It bothered me that someone who had gained their trust and good opinion, even if only for a couple of hours because that’s all it takes to make a lasting impression, was using this power irresponsibly. Gullible audience were being taken in by someone who was encouraging them to laugh at accents, laugh at unusual behaviour (including features of the Asperger’s) and laugh at being disrespectful and laugh at others.
This is so not the point of the story. You don’t get it. I thought.
Now, it wasn’t without its glories. The set was incredible. It was resourcefully used, it was quickly and slickly changed to suit varying tones, and it was very pretty. The use of lights within the graph-paper-blackboard cube space was clever and used to great effect. I liked it. But it didn’t overcome the lack of magic for me.
*Spoiler alert: The Easter Egg ending was a neat idea, and was fun, but at the same time it heightened the panto level and made me feel I was in the wrong place; being an adult interested in innovative theatre.
My views are my own. Why not go and find out for yourself?
More details and a trailer here on the show’s official website.
Or buy the book by Mark Haddon, which is much better.