Magazine article The Spectator

Literary Junkyard

Magazine article The Spectator

Literary Junkyard

Article excerpt


Olivier, in rep until 2 May

We critics know everything about the theatre. We see the best shows, we get the finest seats in the house and we're occasionally treated to a fuming glass of vin ordinaire to lubricate our ruminations. And yet what do we really know? Last week a family funeral forced me to miss the press night of Frankenstein and when I logged on to the NT website I found it proudly boasting that the entire run was a slam-dunk sell-out. Rather than haggling with a tout on the South Bank I phoned the NT box office in desperation and was offered a 'standing ticket' on the spot. A standing ticket? I'd always assumed the Olivier was an all-seater stadium. It turns out that the rear of the circle includes a deep gallery where vertical spectators can be accommodated at all shows for five quid.

So along I went, and up I climbed, and aslant the dim-lit passage I felt my way until I found a comfortable perch high above the stage. Within moments I realised why the National has been so shy about selling tickets for this star-studded bonanza. Even for a fiver it's a terrible rip-off.

The play starts with an unclothed male figure emerging zit-like through a sliced trampoline and landing with a bump on the floor. He starts groaning and slobbering noisily. He also does some writhing. Writhing, groaning and slobbering are then joined by a new artistic flavour: twitching. And with this ample store of expressive materials at his fingertips the naked escapologist (played by Jonny Lee Miller) proceeds to impersonate an electrocuted starfish and to jerk and croak and crawl his way around the stage for what seems like two hours but may only be 35 minutes.

What does it mean, this snivelling, spasmodic floor show? Perhaps Mr Miller is playing a character who's just been born.

Perhaps he's playing a character with terrible cramp. Perhaps he's playing himself and has just phoned his agent and discovered he can't break his contract without incurring severe financial penalties.

Eventually, the show perks up and a gang of thugs attack Mr Miller with cudgels and insults and, in so doing, accidentally school him in the rudiments of speech. His first words, 'Piss off', are uttered in the next scene to a kindly old chap who offers him food and shelter. The contrast between the expletive's vulgarity and the friendly milieu in which it's uttered raises a very welcome laugh. …

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