Panic @ Barbican, London

cast list
Phelim McDermott, Lucy Foster, Matilda Leyser, Angela Clerkin

directed by
Julian Crouch and Lee Simpson
Improbable’s Panic is a curling, slippery thing; fragmented, it takes the form of a succession of episodes, some beautiful, some grubby, all bound by the idea of the Greek god Pan and his nymphs.

Pan, we learn, was the ancient god of nature, a keeper of bees, whose origins are foggy, probably predating the Olympians, the oldest of gods; the word ‘panic’ derives from his name.

In Julian Crouch and Lee Simpson’s production the line between the real and the fabricated is regularly twanged like a guitar string.

Stories begin as plausible anecdotes, confessional in tone, as small seeds which then grow and uncoil in to unexpected places. There is the constant, pleasant sensation of being taken for a ride.

Improbable’s co-founder Phelim McDermott plays Pan, the long dead god, or maybe he’s just a man who lives in a cramped Brixton flat surrounded by self help books? At one point he strips down to his pants and struts around the stage as if on hooves, later he charges on with horns strapped to his head, wielding a giant phallus made of twigs (which he proceeds to stroke and rub against things). Alongside these more broadly comic moments there are some sudden, dark plunges: McDermott describes a terrifying attack of labyrinthitis at a remote writers’ retreat, the sense of balance lost, the body responding violently. It’s difficult to tell how much, if any of this, is based in truth, though in a way that’s part of the mischievous appeal.

McDermott’s three nymphs are played by Lucy Foster, Matilda Leyser and Angela Clerkin. They each get their moment, their own spot-lit story, though it is McDermott, with or without his oversized wooden cock, who dominates proceedings and it seems telling that, at one point, in a scene towards the end, all three end up with paper bags over their heads.

If this all serves to make the show seem dry and difficult, it shouldn’t, for the opposite is true: it’s entertaining and intimate, sometimes startling and often very funny. It’s also visually thrilling in a low key way. Phil Eddoll’s brown paper set proves endlessly versatile, transforming into clouds, waves and tree branches where necessary. Projections, shadow work and puppetry all play their part: in a scene that feels like a cross between a Jams Bond title sequence and a Benny Hill skit tiny naked shadows rut in the background; a small sinister puppet Pan is brought to life by all four performers; a photo of a woman’s face is made to cry paper tears; and, at one point, rather ingeniously, a square of light turns the brown paper backdrop into a vertical double bed from which sleeping heads peek.

There is an appealingly rough, slip-shod feel to some of this, though one wonders how much of that is deceptive. On one occasion McDermott’s horns escape from his head mid-scene, later he almost trips over a part of the set. I put that there, grins Clerkin wickedly.

Running to around 100 minutes without an interval, it feels rather too long, a bit confused and looping, and it starts to repeat itself before the end. In fact a number of conceivable end points come and go before it settles on one. But the over-arcing message, that there is a trace of horny goat god inside us all, and that we would do well to listen to it sometimes, is a very agreeable one.

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