Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Opened 15 May, 1995

It's not hard to see why theatrical fruitcake Ken Campbell has been attracted for so long to Raymond Briggs' gleefully vile children's book. A hero who luxuriates in slime and slop, and whose job is to creep up at night to the surface world and engender boils on unsuspecting Kevs and Sharons, is the sort of figure who is right up Campbell's alley or, more accurately, right down his dank and malodorous burrow. Fifteen years on from his first failed attempt, Coventry's Belgrade Theatre has finally given him the chance to direct a stage version in all its noisome glory.

Mac MacDonald as Fungus revels in the grime and nastiness, relishing the opportunities to turn the stomachs of more unsuspecting audience members. (In fact, on the opening night he inadvertently gave rather more than his all, as the seat of his pants headed south and rewarded us with a brief "Dagenham smile".) Aided by Claire Lyth's wonderful, bilious design, MacDonald is Fungus come to life, rubbing bottoms as a sign of affection for his "drearest" wife Mildew (Martyn Jacques of The Tiger Lillies in shrieking falsetto and reeking crinoline) and moistening the dry bread of his rotten sandwich by dipping it in the toilet cistern.

Mike Carter takes Briggs' story a step further, steering bogey-son Mould (Tracy Harper) into bad company with a bunch of rebellious "drop-ins" who yearn to live cleanly above ground and clandestinely watch "video nicies" such as Reader's Digest gardening tapes; Fungus himself is imbued with an anti-social fascination with cleanliness in the form of a secret collection of loo-rolls. Naturally, the harmony of filthiness is ultimately restored, as the rehabilitated Fungus arms himself with pump-action slime-guns and, like a pustular Rambo, reclaims his son from the loathsome hygiene of the hospital up top.

Harmony of a different kind is the show's major weakness. Carter and Corin Buckeridge have written a through-composed musical a "plop opera". Unfortunately, it's fatally light on actual numbers. Lines are sung either in unrhymed recitative or in songs which largely sound like unrhymed recitative. Occasionally a standard but unmemorable chord sequence emerges for a minute or two, but then it's back to the musical murk of a poor '70s pop opera in the key of P minor.

Despite this crippling drawback, Campbell and cast keep the atmosphere of nasty fun festering along satisfactorily, with the likes of gratuitous elastic-willy gags and a bookshelf crammed with titles such as À la Recherche de Bogeys Perdu. It's a custom-made Christmas show, so whether it will do the desired business at Whitsuntide remains to be seen, but I suppose that if it's your particular cake of snot it's enjoyable enough at any time of year.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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