MR PUNTILA AND HIS MAN MATTI
Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 13 October, 1998

One of the greatest mysteries to me on this year's Edinburgh Fringe concerned a review in another paper of this Right Size/Almeida co-production of Brecht's play, fifty years after its première; what on earth, I wondered, could have irked my colleague into such a display of outraged sniffiness? Brecht, he seemed to be saying, must not be made remotely enjoyable for fear of trivialising the author's political message.

Returning to this wonderful production on its arrival at the Almeida, my socialist antennae were a-quiver, alert for any easy gloss put on the notion of class struggle and the ineradicable gulfs caused by social and financial inequality. Not a bit of it; the message remains conspicuously in place. The fact that it is conveyed through The Right Size's trademark physical comedy and a clutch of magnificently silly songs by Chris Larner does nothing to diminish the Brechtian core of the work.

The Right Size's twin mainsprings, Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, are well suited to their roles here. McColl plays a landowner who is the spirit of effusive bonhomie when drunk (literally falling over himself to be friendly) and a humourless, oppressive bastard when sober; Foley is his Everyman foil good-hearted, often wrong-footed by his master's mood changes (again, literally; Foley does a marvellous line in Norman Wisdom-like hesitant footwork) but possessed of a solid, fundamental understanding of the bigger picture. They are augmented by a characteristically excellent performance from Hayley Carmichael as Puntila's daughter Eva who, try as she might, remains irredeemably stuck-up, and a supporting cast including an enjoyably twittish Harry Gostelow as Eva's betrothed, a diplomat whose very inoffensiveness becomes intensely annoying.

Kathryn Hunter's direction makes full use of Lee Hall's bouncy, ballsy, no-nonsense version of the script, and Tim Hatley's design produces a final coup the like of which has not been seen at the Almeida since Diana Rigg's Medea. True, the occasional touch fails, but the production typifies the Right Size approach of moving far too fast for failure ever to catch up; sequences such as that in which Eva and Matti fake a sexual assignation in the sauna are pure, daft joys, and moments like Puntila's occasional collapses into DTs and Matti's sudden seriousness pull the audience up short without seeming to remonstrate with us. We still get the Brechtian message at full strength; as the central duo sing to the accompaniment of Foley's ukulele, "Bert Brecht's a name that should be dear ter/Anyone who dips a toe in soc'list theatre."

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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