Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened (sort of) 25 May, 2001

Lung exhibits the kind of spontaneity and flexibility that is very occasionally encountered in the hothouse milieu of the Edinburgh Fringe, but nowhere else. There is no reason why its strategy should not be more widely used; indeed, one can almost imagine high-profile musicals treading this path to defuse audience ire when their stars fall too frequently ill. Almost.

The Belfast-based Ridiculusmus company was at the time in the midst of a retrospective-cum-binge, performing fifteen shows within a few weeks in a range of venues across London. The flagship production was to have been last year's Edinburgh success Say Nothing. However, at the end of an earlier performance of another show, actor Jon Hough complained of chest pain. This grew worse overnight, and Hough was finally admitted to hospital, where was diagnosed as having suffered a spontaneous pneumothorax a collapsed lung.

Rather than let the company's batting average drop, David Woods, the other linchpin of the company, assembled Lung within 48 hours. Admission was free; those visitors to the Riverside Studios who had not already heard about the cancellation of Say Nothing, or who (as I did) turned up regardless, were welcomed into the theatre where Woods was limbering up and applying massage oil to himself, for reasons soon to become apparent. A tape played in the background of Hough wheezing in his hospital bed; later, a video message was played from the patient, dosed at the time of recording with diamorphine.

Woods explained the possible causes and nature of pneumothorax, with the help of medical textbooks, Internet data, and practical demonstrations. These were characteristic of Ridiculusmus's deadpan surrealism: the first utilised some balloons and a bicycle pump, but for the second we were invited to go for a stroll with Woods. As we crossed Hammersmith Bridge and proceeded along the Thames Path, we were given little talks on subjects ranging from traffic pollution and auto-erotic asphyxiation to Arts Council of Northern Ireland funding. On arrival at the Barnes athletics track, Woods invited all comers to join him in running 400 metres and afterwards describing the physical symptoms of the "oxygen debt" brought on by this exertion.

Yes, as a performance it was unfocused and unsure of itself. However, as a rapid response to circumstance and a testament both to Ridiculusmus's theatrical perspective and to their dedication, it's among the most admirable events I have seen for some time. Jon Hough was sufficiently recovered to perform Say Nothing later in its scheduled run; even if he had not been, there would have been worse ways to spend a balmy evening than rambling (in every sense) with David Woods.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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