Soho Theatre + Writer's Centre, London W1
Opened 15 January, 2003

Told By An Idiot is a theatre company centred upon a trio of brilliant practitioners in their field: Hayley Carmichael, Paul Hunter and John Wright. However, the last couple of their productions which I've seen left me not just disappointed, but outright worried that they were selling themselves short with a kind of theatrical doodling. The title of their latest production, A Little Fantasy, did not inspire hope. But I left the Soho Theatre buoyed up after witnessing a welcome return to form.

The piece is based loosely on the writings of Flannery O'Connor, whose gallery of southern U.S. grotesques has inspired others ranging from John Huston (who filmed her Wise Blood with Brad Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton) to Nick Cave (whose novel And The Ass Saw The Angel owes a clear debt to O'Connor). The opening scene, in which an asthmatic farm worker with a wooden leg enjoys a clandestine coupling with a midget conwoman, is pretty much a crash course in the O'Connor perspective.

Thereafter, matters shift to an anonymous small town, where the same knot of characters keep combining in different permutations, like a more intricate down-home version of Short Cuts: Enoch Baxter may or may not leave his wife for his former secretary after a two-year affair, and Lana, the diminutive bunco artist from the first scene, teams up with Carol in both friendship and fraud. It could be any time in the 1930s or '40s: there is a slight but unspecified Great Depression air to proceedings, although the latest blockbuster to play the town picture house is Now, Voyager, whose final scene we hear voiced by different cast members three or four times over. Everyone's favourite movie star, though, is Gonga, who is either a talking ape or a guy in a gorilla suit it doesn't really matter, as either is appropriately O'Connoresque.

Hunter directs the cast of five with the company's customary blend of lightness and precision. New collaborator Jane Guernier fits right in with a routine of comically protracted eye-acting during a scene about a James Cagney lookalike contest, and Lisa Hammond has the considerable technique and sensitivity required in her role as a kind of Mini-Me to Carmichael (for whom high praise can now simply be taken as read).

As usual with Told By An Idiot, there's no profundity to be uncovered, just their characteristic wry yet loving take on various kinds of human interaction. This time, deliciously, one can't ask for more. Yes, I'm trying to avoid ending with that Bette Davis quote.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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