Images by Al Caeiro
Do you long for subversive comedy and theatre with a capital T? Regret the loss of sensation from our stages? Do you love the freakery of the side-show? If you are not troubled by the sight of pustular eruptions and blood-letting – indeed, if you find that kind of stuff hilarious – then, ladies and gentlemen, step right this way. Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness by Anthony Neilson for La Boite and Sydney Theatre Company could be just the transgressive tonic needed for jaded theatre palates.
If you are a tad squeamish, never did understand all the fuss over Monty Python or, if you like a nice neat slab of realism all wrapped up at night’s end, then stay away; this one is not for you. If, however, you throw caution to the wind and your curiosity eventually leads you to a seat ringside, be warned. You are going to be whirled away by theatre in full outrageous, imaginative flight in the equivalent of a wild fairground ride. There is no stopping and no retreat once the carnivale capers begin and you are invited via the seductive tones of the mysterious, caped and moustachioed Edward Gant (Paul Bishop) to witness his tales of wonder.
Our host and master of the small troupe introduces his Players: Madame Poulet (Emily Tomlins) ‘Little’ Nicky Ludd (Lindsay Farris) and Sgt Jack Dearlove (Bryan Probets). This lineup of Victorian era fringe-dwellers are to be our tale-tellers for the evening. By the way, buy a programme; their backstories are worth the price alone.
The stories the Players enact are the stuff of melodrama: fantastic, grotesque confections like the tale-tellers themselves – but they are marvellously, awe-fully funny too. There are also hints of ripping yarns, nursery tales and Kipling but I’m not going to spoil a minute of the fun ahead of you by spilling the pearls on this neo-Victorian romp. Trust me though – Tennyson it isn’t.
The play reminded me of a couple of books I had as a child. They were full of oddities and cruelty and I’m not exactly sure how I ended up with them – some aunt or uncle with a dark sense of humour, perhaps. Coles Funny Picture Books contained morality tales and creepy poetry where naughty children are whipped (for heaven’s sake) by machines, and family pets die to save the kids – and, and they were ILLUSTRATED! You just never forget some things! These weird and wonderful books were the stuff of the high Victorian age, and had emerged from the fevered brain of Edward William Cole who set up and ran a huge Book Arcade in marvellous Melbourne in the 1880s. Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness has the same kind of very English (and perverse) 19th century sensibility – laced with dirty bits. Despite all the excesses and the cruelty, at the heart of this fable is romance – a lovely pearl just waiting to be set free. You’ll understand when you see the show.
The production, which is directed by Sarah Goodes in her debut for both companies, is spectacular in the real sense of the word. Costume designs by Romance Was Born are just plain dazzling and the best we’ve seen in town for a long time. However (picky time here) I wish the crew had been a bit more motley and moth-eaten, given they’re a travelling troupe of whimsy tale-peddlers. They look like something from the glitzy Venice Carnivale rather than a down at heel bunch somewhere in Victorian England. Renée Mulder‘s clever set design – a fantastic contraption with a nod to steam-punk – and the lighting design by Damien Cooper mesh beautifully together. It looks terrific.
The four-member acting ensemble are uniformly excellent. I’ve always felt Emily Tomlins had an inner clown just waiting to be let out. This play gives her free rein to play across the comic range from gentle, tragic heroine through outrageous freak to a toy bear abandoned in the nursery. She’s a joy to watch. Bryan Proberts is made for this kind of crazy, physical comedy; he doesn’t miss a beat here, bringing a sureness of touch and an aura of melancholy that reminded me of the great Buster Keaton. Who knew he could also play the trumpet? Newcomer (to Brisbane, anyway) Lindsay Farris has a gift of a role as Ludd – the former boy-actor turned radical. He gets to play some wildly funny characters with gusto. And it is Paul Bishop’s ringmaster figure who prowls the performance space spinning these yarns of lost love and loneliness together. His top-hatted, cloaked Gant is a gentle, sad, pot-bellied magician in stripes and, it turns out, the biggest romantic of all. They’re all in top form.
The cast of characters inhabited by Messrs Probets and Farris and Ms Tomlins is vast. I won’t spoil the delight you will undoubtedly have on introduction, but I will just say that my favourite (probably Neilson’s scariest creation for actors anyway) is the Phantom of the Dry. Once met, never forgotten.
Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness plays its Brisbane Season at The Roundhouse until 12 June. Details on sessions and booking from the company website.