Hen & Chickens Theatre, London – until 2 March 2019
Going to a pub theatre immediately opposite Highbury and Islington tube station on an evening when Arsenal is playing at home can definitely be included on a list of Things I Would Not Recommend and a list of Ways That I Suffer For My Art So Respect My Random Musings Please. Like that time I fell arse over tits up the stairs at The Bush and had mega bruises for over a week. But I digress.
Starting this post with a series of personal digressions, though, is entirely appropriate; in keeping as it is with both the text and the subject of the play I will at some point get round to actually starting to review here. The First Modern Man, by Michael Barry, tells the story of Michel de Montaigne: thinker, essayist, cat person and lover of a good digression. Based on the volumes of biography-philosophy hybrids that Montaigne wrote, the play is a one man affair which mingles a quick trot through his life with some of his more relevant and, for want of a better word, interesting Big Ideas.
There’s no doubt that Montaigne, as presented here, is a fascinating figure with a fascinating story and some fascinating ideas. More than that, he seems just really bloody nice. The sort of person you would definitely want to end up talking to at a party. And that’s sort of what this play feels like: meeting someone really cool at a party and listening to them talk.
In the cosy surrounds of the Hen and Chickens Theatre (a great example of the pub theatre genre, with actual proper seating and an impressive – if small – performance space) it’s an incredibly engaging evening. Barry’s script has chosen well from Montaigne’s back catalogue (I read some at university and believe me it’s not all this interesting) and pulled out some of the ideas with the most contemporary resonance well, without ever trying to over egg the ‘look how contemporary this idea is’ pudding. It’s zippy and brisk and strongly structured, even if for my money it could have stood to be a few minutes shorter – an hour is a long time for a monologue like this, the friendly cosiness loses some of its charm by the end. But only some.
In some ways I wonder if a more disciplined focus on one or two of Montaigne’s biggest ideas might have sustained things better, but I suspect that would also have resulted in a very different play from what Barry is aiming at here. I don’t think he had any intention of writing an ideas play, rather a biography of someone whose existence was ideas. Judged against that, the play is certainly an entertaining success.
The production on evidence is extremely accomplished too. Director Helen Niland has done a great job to create a little world around Montaigne that feels real. Piran Jeffcock’s set combines with Venus Raven’s clever lighting and Julian Starr’s affecting sound to impressively create the world inside Montaigne’s library (where the play is set), the occasional intrusion of the outside world (sad we never got to meet the always just off stage cat though) and the world conjured by his memory and imagination. A charismatic, engaging and subtle performance from Jonathan Hansler as Montaigne anchors everything. This show in this space with a weaker actor would be an absolute disaster.
I was both impressed and entertained by The First Modern Man. Is it the most exciting or innovative thing I’ve ever seen? No. But it is an hour of solidly good writing, performed with honesty and commitment, really well staged. Like sitting down to a dinner party to find you’ve been put next to the most interesting guest, it’s an evening very well spent. Even if you have to fight your way through the football crowd to get there.
The First Modern Man is at The Hen and Chickens Theatre until 2nd March.
My ticket for this was kindly provided by the production. An unreserved seat would normally cost £12.