How could Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, known jointly as the right size [sic], hope to top their Olivier award-winning comedy Do You Come Here Often? I have no idea, but with Bewilderness, now at the Lyric Hammersmith, top it they have.
Where Do You... was about two men trapped in a bathroom for 26 years, Bewilderness is about two men who fall down the back of a sofa in a holiday cottage in Devon into a surreal netherworld. Obvious, really. Alice Power's ingenious set design is both less specific than her versatile loo and even more complex: the raked stage is riddled with trapdoors through which people and objects appear and vanish; one's entire perspective can turn through ninety degrees in a second; life-size puppets, video projection and (literally) bicycle-driven lighting effects are all used. For the first ten minutes of the show, the set and both actors are clad entirely in brown paper.
McColl and Foley make a classic double-act, albeit one without a straight man: McColl inclines towards snippy, precisian characters, Foley excels at amiable fuddlement. Here, lawyer and Territorial Army weekender Maurice and ice-cream man Terry reunite after twenty years, only to find themselves plunged into the world beneath the webbing, with its mysterious seascapes, abysses, pubs and their inhabitants. The last include the venerable Freddie Jones as Mr Todd, stuck down the sofa for decades, and Chris Larner, longtime songwriter for the company, who makes his first stage appearance with them here as a mysterious pinstriped nemesis with one ruby loafer – his singing voice is less than perfect, but his ridiculous songs are as delightful as ever, and he looks bizarrely like a cross between musical fringe stalwart Earl Okin and critic Paul Morley strumming a banjo.
Foley and McColl, and their regular director Jos Houben, are endlessly inventive verbally, visually and physically. Their radio series The Remains Of... shows as much, but with the added ingredients of both visuals and the common physical presence of theatre, the joy is immeasurably greater. It's a supreme example of theatre as play: a conceit, or dazzling series of conceits, that we agree to share, and take pleasure at once in pretending they're real, in the cleverness of the construction and in the freedoms that we have both as performers and audience within the rules we've accepted. We can watch on video as Foley escapes off the stage to Egypt; he can stand on stage and watch his dummy self crowd-surf over our heads to the exit door. At the same time, we realise that beneath all the delicious daftness, there are serious perspectives on friendship, camaraderie, the cruelties of the world and whatnot, but these slip in under cover of the bonkers fireworks onstage. I have no doubt that Bewilderness will follow its predecessor into the West End... but don't wait: see it now.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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