Dapper in topper and tails and impeccable of moustache, he awes his audience with freakish tales of broken hearts and suppurating skin.
This revival of Anthony Neilson’s 2002 play is a mish-mash of things.
Presented as a recreation of a stage show of 1881, The Amazing Feats of Loneliness of the title, it is, initially at least, a blend of the grotesque and the crudely comic, full of nudge-nudge humour and waves of pus and vomit.
A young woman afflicted with acne finds that her face has the capability to produce pearls; a man hikes to the Himalayas to have the images of his dead love literally drilled out of existence; a (human sized) stuffed bear recounts its abandonment by its owner.
It is like The League of Gentlemen at their most perverse, veering at times into Little Britain territory as bodily fluids gush over the floor. But as with Neilson’s other recent plays, the disappointing God in Ruins and divisive The Wonderful World of Dissocia, there are different layers of reality at work here. As with both those productions there is a Pirandellian fracturing of the world we are presented with. There are jarring pauses, as Gant’s fellow performers grow increasingly uncomfortable with their opium-addicted boss. The play begins to pick itself apart, to reveal something unexpected and altogether more human and questioning beneath the sticky veneer.
That said, this late detour doesn’t quite emerge clean from the grossness of the earlier scenes; it remains tainted. The audience never learn enough about Gant and his troupe to fully engage with this new turn of events. There are intriguing hints of a friendship forged on the battlefield between Gant and Sam Cox’s Jack Dearlove, but given the time devoted to pus and pimples in the early half of the play, this remains frustratingly thinly sketched. There is also an attempt to raise the question of what one wants theatre to do: encapsulated in a poem that pits whimsy against hard reality. But again this feels secondary to the yucky stuff. The final revelation, when it comes however, is still quite potent.
The cast are excellent. Simon Kunz has just the right amount of swagger as Gant and Sam Cox, Nicholas Ludd and Emma Handy, leaping between roles, are all equally strong, the latter impressively managing to emote from behind a mask of acne. Tom Scutt’s Victorian set is full of lovely details and, to be fair, the audience seemed to be laughing a great deal, for it is at times wickedly, weirdly funny. But it is impossible to shake a sense of frustration that this could have been far more interesting were it to focus less on gross excess and more on the characters that populate this intriguing world.