Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London – until 1 August 2015
Guest Reviewer Terry Eastham reviews Slip of the Lip’s production of The Bald Prima Donna
Sometimes, being a reviewer is the easiest job in the world. You go and see a performance, sit in front of a keyboard and the words flow like water over Niagara Falls. This review however is not like that. Its very difficult to know what to write about Slip of the Lip’s production of “The Bald Prima Donna” currently playing Upstairs at the Gatehouse.
In a middle class suburb of London, the Smiths are sitting in their living room doing very little. Mrs Smith (Griselda Williams) is doing some needlepoint whilst Mr Smith (Brian Merry) is reading the paper. The two of them exchange glances occasionally and there is a feeling with some of the looks given that they are irritated with each other, but they don’t speak until the clock strikes and Mrs Smith notes that it’s nine o’clock. She then goes on to deliver a long monologue, punctuated every so often by Mr Smith ‘popping’ about their dinner that evening. Eventually ,as the conversation turns to the local Doctor Mr Smith joins in and the two of them have a discussion about the Bobby Watson’s which descends into a bit of an illogical argument. In comes their maid Mary (Annie McKenzie) to inform the Smiths that their guests, the Martins have arrived.
While Mr & Mrs Smith go off to change to greet the Martins, Mary brings them in and berates them for being four hours late for dinner before leaving them. over the next few minutes, Mr Martin (Peter Easterbrook) tries to establish how he knows Mrs Martin (Alice Devine) and the two of them go through the various places where they may have run into each other. While Mrs Martin does not recall their meeting, Mr Martin keeps narrowing things down until she is given conclusive proof that they do indeed know each other and are in fact called Donald and Elizabeth, or are they? Once the Smiths return, the four of them sit and talk dolefully until the front door bell rings and, after a convoluted conversation, it is opened and the Captain of the Fire Brigade (Guy Remy) comes in looking for a fire to put out. With his arrival, our cast is complete and the play moves into a new phase of conversations, stories, bizarre behaviour and lipstick smearing occurs before the final twist at the end.
La Cantatrice Chauve — translated from French as The Bald Soprano or “The Bald Prima Donna” — was the first play written by Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionesco and was first performed in 1950. It is described by the writer as an ‘anti-play’ and is apparently part of the theatre of the absurd genre and is apparently one of the most performed plays in France. With a pedigree like that, I should have really enjoyed the experience of seeing it performed live. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Due to the absurdity of the script, consisting of a series of non-sequiturs with no resemblance to normal conversation, I left the theatre wondering if I had just watched something extremely clever but which I was too dense to understand properly. Listening to the conversations of others leaving the show, I was not alone in that so I’m afraid I am never going to love the show.
Saying that, I have to give praise to the actual production. The actors delivered their, at times highly repetitive and convoluted lines faultlessly. The Fire Chief in particular had some huge twisted speeches for example in his story ‘The Headcold’ he has around 260 words describing a family tree of great complexity. This production must be hard work for the actors, but under Director Paul Hoskins, they show how a strong cast can work superbly together to deliver a great performance. The Smith’s bare living room was used very well and the clock effects sounded pretty realistic, even sounding as if they came from the clock rather than a soundtrack.
So to summarise then. This was one of the strangest nights I have ever had at the theatre. On the one hand, I really disliked “The Bald Prima Donna” as a play but on the other, I thought the production and staging were really good and worked extremely well. This confusion of emotions I felt is probably a good analogy for the play itself.