Young Vic Theatre, London SE1
Opened 29 March, 1995

Director David Glass's programme notes to this production begin by declaring that "For some time I have been looking to create a piece of contemporary realism. I wanted to find a modern story that would express itself in psychologically realistic terms whilst evoking a world different from our own." Unfortunately, the heightened visual/physical style of performance which proved a necessary skeleton key to 1992's Gormenghast here swamps Paul Theroux's novel about a self-sufficiency obsessive trying to forge a life for his family in the Honduran jungle.

Glass notes the story's affinities with Moby-Dick and Heart Of Darkness, both notoriously unstageable. In fact, his production of John Constable's adaptation reminds me less of Heart Of Darkness itself than the film it inspired, Apocalypse Now: the succession of episodes of lysergic surrealism are more Coppola than Conrad.

The decision to lapse repeatedly into pseudo-symbolic dance seems in part down to the practicalities of changing scenes on Rae Smith's set of synthetic earth and wooden planks. As the timber is wielded to create anything from a jungle cooling plant to a dream-crucifix for cracked protagonist Allie Fox, the company of eight undertake several ballets with the planks and, well, once you've seen one plank ballet, you've seen 'em all.

Thirteen-year-old Charlie Fox is reduced from the chronicler of his father's decline and fall (as in the book) to its often mute witness; Peter Bailie is compelled to rely upon the Martin Sheen device of manic-incredulous stares to convey Charlie's growing disillusionment.

The lion's share of the dialogue goes to Allie's increasingly cracked eco-evangelistic outpourings (a religious parallel made explicit by the presence of a noisome American missionary at various points in the tale). Tom Hodgkins gets full value out of Allie's messianic streak, frenziedly rolling on the ground in violent self-mortification when he destroys the family's mini-township, but the script's gradual intimations of Allie's instability become jerkier quantum jumps in performance, and his final demonic psychosis is reminiscent less of Kurtz than Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Cait Davis's portrayal of Charlie's younger brother Jerry is short-changed by a script over-reliant on the same few childish words of disapprobation: faithful to Theroux perhaps, but unhelpful to an actor. The remaining three actresses switch parts from night to night, alternately playing a couple of Zambu Indians, the missionary's daughter and the Fox family's mother. It is hard to imagine either of the others improving on Dystin Johnson in this last role, agonisedly suppressing her instincts towards her family in the vain hope that her husband will, if indulged, eventually return to his senses.

Overall, though, however much Glass draws on the Brazilian martial art Capoeira to stylise the actors' movements and on tribal musical sounds to create a jungle atmosphere, he does not succeed in his stated aim of marrying his theatrical style to a narrative rooted in the real world, albeit a real world gone crazy. The production is like Allie Fox's sleight-of-hand conjuring tricks: adroit, but not nearly the wonder it pretends to be.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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