Monday, 16 June 2014

Theatre review: Enduring Song

A few years after delivering a small-but-perfectly formed Bound at the old venue, Jesse Briton returns to Southwark Playhouse to deposit something much bigger and messier onto its main stage. Enduring Song is a story of the Crusades that starts in a small French farming village and goes to Antioch and Jerusalem - although in a very real sense it also goes precisely nowhere. Matthew (Tom Roe) has just got married to the girl he accidentally knocked up when he's visited by bishop Peter (Alex Harland,) the shiftiest priest ever to priest shiftily. Peter tells Matthew that he has to go to the Middle East and kill some brown people because Jesus. He himself will help him, mostly by running away. This stirring sales pitch is successful, and Matthew and three of his friends are soon leaving his disabled father, mute sister and drunken grandmother to take care of the failing farm by themselves.

I've frequently made it clear how I feel about writers directing their own work, especially in their premiere production, and Unendurable Song proves my point once again as Briton delivers a bloated, overwritten, interminable evening where lots of people run around shouting.

A recent drama school graduate and showing his inexperience, the nominal lead is a block of wood floating on a sea of ham, dwarfed by the overacting around him; particular offenders are Jane Thorne as the drunk grandmother Bella, and Harland as the bishop whose untrustworthiness can be seen from space, so the fact that Matthew falls for his pitch is ridiculous to start with, let alone trying to pass off the fact that he's a bad'un as a plot twist. One of the few inadvertently entertaining moments comes when Peter pretends to be possessed by god, and does a big, booming "god" voice in amongst all the flailing around to prove it; while I desperately try not to laugh out loud.

"You're tearing me apart, Lisa!"

Almost all of the first hour, when we're introduced to Matthew's life in the village, feels unnecessary; the inevitability of his being drafted to the crusade is dragged out over several scenes, and it's not like we really get any feel for who these characters are before they get taken to war. And if the main character reference point we're given to get to know Gaston (Jac Husebo) is that he likes to run around naked, having that only described second-hand and not shown on stage is not going to endear itself to this blog's specialist interests.

Endurance Slog is a show so plodding it can make even swordfights seem dull, and the only real enjoyment to be had is, unfortunately, at its expense. Such as the groups of women who occasionally giggle offstage like Japanese schoolgirls in anime. Or Briton being careless how he mixes and matches from the Big Book of Clichéd Dialogue: Peter greets Matthew with "I can't believe how much taller you are than last time I saw you!" which later turns out to have been at his christening. I know mediaeval priests probably weren't experts on anatomy, but surely they'd know that babies will tend to get a bit bigger, given a couple of decades. Then there's the fact that Rafe Beckley, as Matthew's father Robert, looks a bit like Graham Chapman, and the Crusaders are off to Antioch so I was hoping they'd bring him back the Holy Hand Grenade. Or the farming that is inexplicably expressed through the gift of interpretative dance. Or the fact that Jennifer (Eloise Secker) adds another sweater to her bump every scene so she looks at least 24 months pregnant by the end. Or Robert claiming "we don't talk about my dead wife," presumably not having been paying attention for the previous two hours, during which nobody shut the fuck up about his dead wife. Seriously, I think I knew more about his dead wife than about any of the living characters on stage.

And if all this makes it sound like Enduring Snore is in so-bad-it's-good territory, remember these are tiny moments in almost three hours of shouting and running about to little or no effect. A lot of sound, a bit of misplaced fury, signifying less than nothing.

Enduring Song by Jesse Briton is booking until the 5th of July at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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