Parasites @ Hen & Chickens, London

cast list
Richard Ings
Damien Warren-Smith
Antonia Windsor
Heather Wilds

directed by
Frances Burge
Ali Muriel’s Parasites begins as a dark comedy of manners, delving into human relations. Set in an office of a failing (read “new”) English university, two desks at right angles are laid out in front of a projector screen.

As the audience enters, downstage right snores a man sporting salt and pepper facial hair and a lived-in woolly jumper. Then into the room bustles a smartly dressed younger man who sets about sweeping up his older colleague with some haste.

There’s good reason – it’s departmental inspection day and the younger man is Professor Trevor Harris, head of a department dedicated to the study of parasites. Concerned about creating a favourable impression, he is dismayed to find his colleague Professor Anthony Kirk in a drunken and unkempt state. Thus ensues some witty repartee between the jaded Kirk and the eager but taut young pretender.

But when inspector Professor Clara Baff and her secretary Lucy arrive, they prove the catalysts for an ingenious change of pace and direction that, without spoiling the surprise, owes more to Shaun Of The Dead than Ayckbourn.

Kirk’s past and his pivotal relationship with an estranged family member are examined before the script veers off on a quite unexpected course. This turn of events keeps the audience guessing not only where the tale will end, but how the cast will get themselves to the finishing line more or less intact. It makes for compulsive viewing throughout.

Richard Ings as Kirk gets the lion’s share of the best lines, and makes the most of them with keen comic timing: monologues flash by like stand-up comedy. As his foil, Damien Warren-Smith’s Harris, initially over-the-top and half way across No Man’s Land in contrast to Kirk’s laconic manner, proves well able to handle the play’s demanding physical wants. As the schoolmistressy Baff, Antonia Windsor has great fun with a character of two distinct halves while Heather Wilds as Lucy provides a youthful, energetic foil for the academics around her.

There’s comedic but refreshingly simple use of the set, lighting, sound and visuals (no Trevor Nunn-style electronics here) and director Frances Burge moulds it all together seamlessly, never letting the show miss a beat. But it’s Ali Muriel’s inventive imagination for scatological knockabout comedy scenarios, verbal as well as physical, that really steals the show.

Parasites runs for nearly 90 minutes without an interval, but you’d never guess. New writing is rarely this much fun and performed with so much gusto. Do not miss.

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