November 18, 2009

Vantastic and Lobster, Oval House Theatre

4 stars

Joe Orton meets Alan Ayckbourn may be the most fitting way of describing Russell Barr’s writing, here on show in a double bill at the Oval House Theatre. The two plays, Vantastic and Lobster, which are loosely connected, are a chilling, disturbed and deeply funny insight into human loneliness and the ways in which people cope. In Vantastic, two campervans are parked up alongside one another. One houses ageing parents Pam and Peter (Eileen Nicholas and Richard Syms) and stuffed dog Shaggy in a nappy. Shacked up in the other is their daughter Scratchitt (beautifully played by Clare Grogan) and her gay boyfriend Doddie (Richard Flood). Outside is an intruder (Leo Richardson), a simple, orphaned teenage boy who wants to reconstruct the family he has never had and invades each caravan in turn appealing for a surrogate family. The direction is superb and the acting incredibly good. Nicholas and Syms make a cracking married couple with the forty year itch, Peter enduring his wife’s continual harassment with gritted teeth and a vague intellectual superiority; Pam patronising Peter’s misguided life choices and his lack of responsibility with shrill melodrama. The family dynamics are recognisable and – although extreme as Pam repeatedly voices her disappointment at Scratchitt’s early menopause and subsequent ‘dry fanny’ – are presented with a light touch. There are also moments of touching intimacy, for example when Pam screws up the Daily Telegraph that Peter has been desperately burying himself in and his face crumples in motion with his paper. Likewise, Scratchitt’s childlessness and lack of love leads her to crave a cuddle with a stranger. The comedy is beautifully handled; the pathos and violence managed with impressive restraint.

The second item of the double bill, Lobster, which the audience shuffle upstairs for, is less funny as Barr plunges us into a surreal world of screwing and beating up grandmas, self-harm, and voyeuristic homosexuality. Yet his confidant grasp of the absurd and ability to diffuse uncomfortable situations with mundane lines such as, ‘Now, I’m going for a slash’, rescues this play from simply being disturbed and morbid. Tobias (Richard Flood) lives with his gran, Chatty (Eileen Nicholas) in her hermetic home. The outside world is both alluring and frightening, and consequently, Tobias and Chatty’s life together becomes more defensively interwoven while they talk about travel and favourite holiday destinations. Like Orton’s Kath in Entertaining Mr Sloane, Chatty harbours both sexual and a maternal feelings for her grandson and the two are uncomfortably mingled. Chatty’s epileptic boy hostage whom she victimises (Leo Richardson) soon becomes of romantic interest to Tobias and a power struggle commences between Chatty and the boy. All the time, a real-life lobster, whom Tobias invests a great interest in, fidgets away in his tank.

It’s a nicely judged play and production, with the moments of harsh intensity finely balanced with quieter moments of reflections on life. The characters have little contextual geography and so rare glimpses into their past act as tantalising nuggets of information that we interpret to try and account for their dysfunction in the present. It is nicely staged in an awkwardly elongated space, and the frequent distance between Chatty and Tobias only heightens the tension as their eyes emit angry and passionate laser rays to one another.

This is encouraging writing from a relatively (as of yet) unknown playwright and his flair for dialogue is clearly on show. It is equally owing to the fantastic troupe of actors that director Luke Kernaghan has on board that Barr’s writing is able to shine to its full potential.


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