Playing The Victim / People Show 113: Baby Jane
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2003
**** / **

A cynical friend described the Told By An Idiot company, and its onstage mainstays Hayley Carmichael and Paul Hunter, thus: "They're like garden gnomes, aren't they? They're quite fun, with their bright colours and their little rods and things, but you can't really see what they're for." That's a bit on the harsh side, but it's certainly the case that a number of productions in the Idiots' ten years of existence have seemed to meander along without any great sense of purpose: they've played for a bit, mused for a bit, then stopped. The company tend more often to give of their best when disciplined by external material (as with the stories of Flannery O'Connor in A Little Fantasy earlier this year) and/or an external eye on the proceedings.

Enter the Royal Court Theatre with a script by recent Russian discoveries the Presnyakov Brothers and the directorial services of Richard Wilson. The resulting co-production, Playing The Victim, unveiled at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre before a run at the Court in London and an autumn tour, is prime Idiocy.

The title may sound earnest, but is in fact surreally literal. Thirty-year-old Valya is a slacker who has given so much thought and calculation to avoiding effort that he eats with chopsticks so that his parents get impatient and do the washing-up themselves rather than wait for him. He has also found the perfect job for his minimalist, sardonic temperament: he works with the police, playing the victim in crime reconstructions. An inspector asks questions of a suspect, an officer points a video camera and Valya walks through events as instructed. A number of such reconstruction scenes alternate with snippets of mutually infuriating home life.

This is a world where life is always experienced at one remove. Valya dodges proper involvement at home or at work; his parents admonish him and each other for various flaws and failures; a police inspector inveighs against various aspects of modern life and society. A final scene even suggests that everything that has gone before is just part of a scriptwriter's pitch to a film director; the director, in turn, wants it transformed out of all recognition.

This is perhaps a serious point on the Presnyakovs' part, that we simply do not engage meaningfully with our lives and our surroundings. But it is expertly sugared, in both writing and staging. Andrew Scott's Valya is beyond deadpan, with his penetrating yet slightly unfocused eyes, barely arced eyebrow and flat, affectless delivery; yet somehow this is appealing. Hunter and Carmichael double as Valya's parents and the main police officers in their usual nicely silly style; Ferdy Roberts and Amanda Lawrence periodically steal the scene as the manager and waitress of a Japanese restaurant in which two of the investigated deaths take place. Director Wilson synthesizes the banal and the bizarre elements of the script, the Royal Court and the Told By An Idiot components of the production, with devices such as dreamlike, choreographed scene changes.

Also opening at the Traverse this week is the latest offering from long-standing theatrical oddballs The People Show. Baby Jane involves a quartet of performers locked in a room, re-creating scenes from the movie Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? at the command of an unseen figure. Impulses to be themselves clash with the ongoing requirements of their commission (or their sentence). It's a smart multimedia production with a brace of fine performances, but it suffers from the problem my friend spoke of above: you can't really see what it's for.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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