As the houselights came up at the Bush Theatre, the audience turned to one another and smiled the warm, contented smiles of people who had seen something truly special.
The play in question was Elling, Simon Bent’s adaptation of a cult Norwegian film, which in turn was based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjrnsen. The eponymous Elling is played by John Simm, best known of late for playing Sam Tyler in the BBC’s hugely successful time-travel cop show thingy Life On Mars, which might account for the show already selling out. Those fortunate to have secured a ticket are in for a treat though. This odd couple comedy is a superb piece of theatre, endearing, uplifting and magical.
Elling tells the story of two of society’s outsiders who, having been released from a mental institution, have to work out how to adjust to living independently. Simm’s character is a prissy self-declared mummy’s boy, petrified of the world outside; a man fond of hiding in wardrobes when things get too much for him. He dresses primarily in beige, when he’s not in his pyjamas that is, and has a neat, scrubbed-pink face and a sensible side-parting. He has a methodical way of speaking and moving, and carries a note book around at all times into which he jots down stories and observations.
His roommate at the institution, and the man he is to share a flat with, is almost his complete opposite. Kjell Bjarne, played by Adrian Bower, is a lanky, hairy chap, not fond of washing and preoccupied with sex and women. Yet despite their differences, despite Elling repeatedly referring to Bjarne as an orang-utan, the two men have a real and touching friendship, they depend on one another. The bond that forms between them is touchingly highlighted in the scene where they exchange Christmas presents.
Having been given a place in Oslo to live by the state, they are assigned to a social worker, and warned that if they can’t get on in the outside world they will be sent back to the institution. Perhaps predicatbly, life on the outside proves difficult, and though their initial impulse is to hide away in their flat, with the help of a heavily pregnant woman and an aging poet, they gradually start to reengage with the world.
Simm is quite brilliant as the buttoned-up Elling, as strong a stage actor as he is on screen. Though his character is odd in the extreme, you still find yourself empathising with him, and Simm and Bower work well together, nailing the play’s distinctive rhythms, developing a real rapport. Ingrid Lacey, as their pregnant neighbour Reidun, and Keir Charles, as their despairing social worker Frank, provide strong support.
This is one of the most uplifting productions I’ve seen in a while. The play successfully drags you into their strange world and you find yourself genuinely caught up in their predicament, longing for a happy outcome. You want their friendship to survive, but you also want to see them individually fulfilled, which for Elling means discovering ways of expressing himself creatively, and for Bjarne means having a relationship with a real, live, actual woman, and perhaps even, finally, losing is virginity.
Brilliantly acted, this is warm, human production, unexpectedly moving and very entertaining. Like I said, if you’re fortunate enough to have got a ticket, rejoice.