Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Review You're Human Like The Rest Of Them

Three short plays by a cult late 20th century writer are a welcome introduction to his work, but Peter Barker finds these samples of his craft vary in quality.

You're Human Like The Rest Of Them
Down Red Lane
Not Counting The Savages
by BS Johnson

Bodies And Other Liabilities
Yet he ended his life in 1973 aged just 40, and it is to the Finborough Theatre’s credit that it has brought together three of his short plays for an evening which is uneven but intriguing.
As works of the absurd, the three plays of course have an exaggerated and surreal quality.
Now the Finborough Theatre tackles the same play with the diner (Reginald Edwards) daily abusing his body with a programme of oysters washed down with a Premier Cru Chablis. And it is his belly (played by Alex Griffin-Griffiths) who is the spokesman for the misgivings of his body as it collapses under years of abuse. 
Dark and witty,  the battle between prodigious appetite of the gourmand and the working class belly under siege is the best-written of the trio of plays.

A slightly earlier play in the Johnson canon, the faintly scandalous “Not Counting the Savages”, was originally commissioed as a BBC2 TV drama directed by Mike Newell. A wife and mother (Sarah Berger) returns home from a graveyard and tells her family how, while tending a family headstone, a male flasher ambushed her. She expects support and comfort. 
However her daughter Rosa (Emma Paetz) is self-centred and cold. Her son Jerry (Bertie Taylor-Smith) is a pornographic film maker, who finds her unpleasant experience a source of fun, and perhaps later of artistic inspiration. Her surgeon husband (Brian Deacon) proves totally uninterested in and uncaring about her ordeal, only elsewhere springing into action when his professional skills are required.
The wife should have been a character garnering support from the audience; but on the evidence of this production, Johnson fails to give her any convincing independent existence, except as a strop against which he can sharpen the exaggerated edges of the other characters.

The weakest piece is the final play, the blank verse “You’re Human Like the Rest of Them”. Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964, Johnson went on to direct it as a short film three years later.
The three plays are set to run two hours in the programme but in performance come out at a little over an hour. It feels as if “You’re Human Like the Rest of Them” is where the cut came. 
Taylor-Smith is a teacher Haakon who has a sudden revelation of the human body's peculiar structural inadequacy and his own mortality.  Despite mustering the maximum amount of  energy and plausbility, the idea of wakening to an existential reality feels somewhat juvenile and Taylor-Smith is hampered by a shallow and, unfortunately, dull  piece.

Working around the set of the other play currently running at the Finborough Theatre, the design by Rūta Irbīte also feels rather over-fussy with 1950s second-hand furniture scattered around the walls of the two-sided space.  Three-dimensional geometric shapes such as crescents and rectangles function as tables, chairs and other furnishing.  
The audience only has fleeting glimpses of Johnson's talent in these plays directed by Carla Kingham. A fresh outing for Johnson's work is laudable and it certainly serves a purpose for those interested in UK theatre from the 1950s to the 1970s. But this red/amber light production may not win Johnson many new fans.

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