Saturday, 18 October 2014

Theatre review: Notes from Underground

I'd never been to the original location of The Print Room, a theatre in Notting Hill that had been steadily gaining a strong reputation, but it's now taken on ambitious new premises in what used to be the Coronet Cinema. There's still clearly a lot of development to be done (and I'm not sure the dolls hanging from the toilet doors make it look any less haunted than it already does) but they've already launched a debut season in a studio space. First up, Harry Lloyd and director Gérald Garutti adapt Dostoyevsky's existential novella Notes from Underground into a monologue for Lloyd to perform, and as we enter the space we find him wrapped in a blanket on a stage made out of old hardbacks. Silent and wild-eyed, he gestures to the audience to take a seat, and today seemed quite pained by the fact that one in the front row remained unoccupied until the last minute.

Once he starts his speech it becomes clear that the hints of madness were correct, the narrator has spent the last decade in virtual seclusion in his flat, "underground." His life's been dedicated to books and as he goes on, he describes the frustrations that led him to this world of self-reflection, as the world outside didn't conform to the rules his books said it would.

From inauspicious beginnings, the narrator went through life as one of the people others barely noticed. Culminating in the frustration of not being able to deal with a girl he likes, this feeling of being alone in the middle of a crowd led to him choosing to be alone in a more literal way, and Lloyd recounts the existential horrors of the outside world in a series of voices, characters and twitches, whether it was seclusion that drove him mad or the life before it, never clear.

I've always had a mixed response to Lloyd's acting, loving some of his performances and hating others, and I think Notes from Underground helps me see why: He's a very good actor, but in a very particular way that doesn't appeal to me. When an actor writes his own monologue there's always a fear that it'll be a barely-disguised showcase for their talents, and it's never been truer than here. Lloyd's acting is intense; it's energetic, passionate and displays huge range. And it's constantly at the forefront, impossible to see beyond. Some directors have obviously been able to tone him down but while I can see that Garutti wouldn't necessarily want naturalism here, what we end up with is 70 solid minutes of Oscar Clip, sprayed head to toe in Meryl Streep's Versatility. I hadn't read Dostoyevsky's original and I feel none the wiser about it now: Lloyd's relentless performance is impressive, but it's far too busy being so to shed any light on what he's actually saying.

Notes from Underground by Harry Lloyd and Gérald Garutti, based on the novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is booking until the 1st of November at the Print Room (now at The Coronet, 103 Notting Hill Gate, London W11 3LB.)

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.

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