On its Edinburgh Fringe outing at the Traverse in August, the Told By An Idiot company's Happy Birthday, Mister Deka D was generally characterised as slight but enjoyable, with an uncomfortable emphasis on "slight". As it reaches the end of its tour at the Lyric Studio Hammersmith, I have to report my complete agreement with the opinions of those who have gone before.
Lasting barely forty minutes on the night I saw it, this three-hander is set in a dilapidated former pub, now inhabited only by the ex-barmaid Lika and Mister Deka D himself (Richard Clews), who apparently wandered in one day and has simply stayed, celebrating his birthday with drunken immobility every day since, just sitting rigid with a contented if gnomic grin on his face. Into this setting comes Trisk (Paul Hunter), Lika's erstwhile lover; the two conduct an absurd conversation, answering each other's questions before they are asked, being drowned out by the noise of heavy machinery and at one point recounting an exotic creation myth; then Trisk leaves. C'est tout.
Knowing Hunter, Carmichael, director John Wright and writer Biyi Bandele of old, I could not help but expect... well, more. All concerned are skilled and intelligent practitioners, to say the very least; and, in all honesty, there is nothing actually wrong with this show. Naomi Wilkinson's out-of-kilter design eloquently establishes the location as some kind of cousin to banal reality, but no closer relation; Bandele's writing is tight and economical, and the company's central nexus of Wright, Carmichael and Hunter mesh as consummately as ever. It's just that there seems so little to it. Laconic mundanity is alien to Bandele's writing style, which is naturally more exuberant; one can almost hear in the creation tale a sigh of relief that he can stop holding his authorial breath in for a couple of minutes. The company's "tragic clowning" strengths are here transmuted into a minor key of British absurdity, almost early-Pinterian but without any element of menace. It feels not defective but deficient, as if (although clearly not the case) it were merely something to keep the company occupied until their next "proper" project. Or, to lapse into one of the food metaphors which reviewers should use only in extremis, it is like a brief, crunchy snack: two bites, and it is gone; two minutes, and it is forgotten. This fact is much more disappointing than any aspect of the production itself.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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