Saturday, 5 October 2013

Theatre review: The Lightning Child

Euripides' The Bacchae features an antagonist threatened by sexuality, particularly that of women, whose plan to defeat this perceived threat involves him dressing as a woman himself. Throw in that popular Greek tragedy mainstay, the hermaphrodite seer Teiresias (Bette Bourne,) and it's not hard to see why it might have something to say to transgender people to this day, and be ripe for adaptation. Hence The Lightning Child, the final new premiere of the season at Shakespeare's Globe, and the latest collaboration between Ché Walker (book and lyrics) and Arthur Darvill (music and lyrics.) A disco-infused musical adaptation of the gory classic, The Lightning Child opens with Neil Armstrong (Harry Hepple) being cautioned by his wife that his planned mission is hubristic. Armstrong, of course, goes anyway, and in a scene left out of the history books encounters the man in the Moon, aka the Ladyboy Herald (Jonathan Chambers.) An acolyte of Dionysus, the Herald tells the astronaut of another case of hubris that upset the god.

The Bacchae is the story of Pentheus (Clifford Samuel, who must be hugely popular with the rest of the cast for constantly stepping on their lines,) a king appalled by the annual 3-day festivals of wine and sex in Dionysus' honour. He decides to take them on but unbeknownst to him, the priest he arrests is Dionysus himself (Tommy Coleman) and his punishment for disrespecting a god will be humiliation followed by horrific death.

After a wobbly start (the combination of swear words as a punchline, and Colin Ryan playing up his resemblance to a young Lee Evans gave me horrible flashbacks,) Walker and Darvill have created a soul-tinged, camp version of the myth that reaches out to the freaks of the world and balances some broad comedy with moments of horror and well-judged sadness, Matthew Dunster's production really handling the contradictions well. If this had been enough for them this might have been a real hit but The Lightning Child has ambitions which trip it up. A 1960s framing device on the Moon is all very well as that's all it is, a framing device. But Walker also insists on constantly interrupting the story with playlets taking place in the 20th and 21st centuries, that at best elliptically touch on the main narrative's themes.

So Hepple and Philip Cumbus play junkies who may well be a couple, and whose chance of salvation looking after a dog is scuppered by the greater pull of heroin. Clemmie Sveaas is a trustafarian who shares a flat with a virtuoso violinist (Jess Murphy) and is increasingly unable to handle her flatmate's talent. Moyo Akandé is a South African runner so fast the authorities try to prove she's really a man. And Cat Simmons is Billie Holiday, meeting a face from her past in her dressing room. I sometimes wish writers would take a hint from themselves: If they find they have a character (in this case the Ladyboy Herald) constantly having to reassure the audience it doesn't matter if they don't understand what's going on, they may have taken a wrong turn somewhere in their storytelling.

Not that the cast don't throw their all into these scenes, but they ultimately can't be anything other than distractions from the elemental story they spin off from. Walker seems to be another writer tripped up by trying to create an epic scope for the Globe, when that scope was already there: The play doesn't really feel like a musical, the songs are sparingly used and Darvill fits them perfectly into the wild narrative of The Bachhae. Every time we return to the ancient Greek story it feels like we're back on track - Agave may have been given a somewhat overlong speech upon killing her son but Finty Williams makes it electric. The story, in all the garish, gory glory Dunster gives it, speaks perfectly well to the modern day without having to flash forward all the time. I didn't think this was the absolute disaster it was to many (some of tonight's audience didn't even wait until the interval to make an early exit) but I think it's a shame what could have been a rather effective 100-minute adaptation got padded out into a mess. Still, the show ends with Harry Hepple and Philip Cumbus jigging in their pants, so I'm sure I'll remember it fondly overall.

The Lightning Child by Ché Walker and Arthur Darvill, based on The Bacchae by Euripides, is booking in repertory until the 12th of October at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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