King's Head Theatre, London N1
Opened 8 November, 2007

Sometimes you can see the cleverness in a show's creation, the skill in its execution, and yet it just doesn't do a thing for you. In the past five years The Bicycle Men has been well received in Los Angeles, Chicago and on the New York and Edinburgh Fringes. Its four creators and performers have long and substantial records in American comedy, and are clearly no idiots. The staging has a cheap 'n' cheerful look without being shoddy. It contains a number of fine moments, such as a lullaby in which Dan Castellaneta (replacing co-writer Dave Lewman) croons to baby that there is no God or afterlife and the world is a dreadful place, or the point at which Joe Liss's mute buffoon completes his Marx Brothers pastiche by playing the spokes of a bicycle wheel as if they were a harp. But I'm afraid my enthusiasm needle barely flickered.

This gauzy tale of an American traveller stranded in a small French town when his bicycle crashes just feels gratuitous – not in the sense of excessive, but merely having no particular reason for existing. Why does a musical set in France include parodies of Gilbert & Sullivan, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, all-purpose Latin music and a number about white guys at a fish fry in the 'hood? The answer, I suspect, is that musician Mark Nutter and his comrades came up with the numbers and then looked for a way to string them together; hence the show meanders around many different settings in its 100 minutes without amassing more plot than can be recounted in ten seconds. Why has an interval been added since the programmes were printed? In an effort to make it feel less insubstantial. Why are cuts between scenes punctuated by physical-theatre parodies as the team throw chairs around in dim lighting? Er, pass. Castellaneta rightly declines to play on his status, but without the programme biography one would never believe that this man is a colossus of world culture, supplying as he does the voice of Homer in The Simpsons. That show is admired for its tightness and detail, whereas this one has all the structural bagginess of devised affairs at their worst. I'm afraid the final verdict has to be "D'oh!"

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2007

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage