Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Theatre review: Raising Martha

Animal rights as a metaphor for human rights in Raising Martha, David Spicer's black comedy that throws a lot into the mix and gets varied results. Gerry (Stephen Boxer) runs a farm that breeds frogs for vivisection; as a result it's a target for animal rights protesters, and following violent attacks Gerry's all but barricaded himself in. The latest attack is a personal one: Marc (Tom Bennett) and Jago (Joel Fry) have dug up the bones of his dead mother, and are holding them hostage, to be returned if the farm is sold to an animal charity. Gerry's brother Roger (Julian Bleach) has returned to help with the crisis, but all the brothers do is argue about whether or not to sell. Meanwhile the increased police presence at the farm isn't entirely welcome, as Gerry has diversified into growing marijuana laced with hallucinogenic toad.

Michael Fentiman's production throws a lot of energy into the shenanigans, making the most of a script with some great lines but which also trips itself up a lot of the time.

Rebecca Brower's set is a split-level one that puts the late Martha's grave on a raised level upstage, creating an onstage pit for various pratfalls to take place in, but fortunately not too much happens up there - it's a bit of a strain on the neck looking up from the side stalls. Most of the action takes place on the single set that serves as both Gerry's living room and Marc and Jago's flat, while between them flits Roger's daughter Caro (Gwyneth Keyworth,) whose actual loyalties are always in question.

Though Raising Martha aims for black comedy it's never all that dark despite all the bones; it works better as a romp, particularly in its first act, although there's also an ongoing element of political commentary about the gradual erosion of civil liberties - the setting makes the old adage about boiling frogs an apt one. I've always found Tom Bennett rather goofily lovely, and he injects a bit of sweetness into his dim, half-hearted environmentalist, his supposed convictions mainly motivated by love for Caro, who's clearly leading him on.

It's more of a mixed bag for Jeff Rawle as Inspector Clout, who serves as narrator and gets some funny moments playing with the clichés of TV mystery dramas. The attempt to make him a bit more sinister goes a bit cheesy though, particularly when he's playing opposite Julian "Zombie Will Self" Bleach. The second act does contain the best line* but it also sees the plot fall apart into a bit of a mess of slapstick - and the subplot about Gerry licking psychedelic toads and seeing six-foot frogs likewise has the feel of trying to cram in as many comic ideas as possible whether or not they work. The show seems to have inspired something of a Marmite response but I found myself somewhere in the middle, with a lot of moments to enjoy but something half-baked about the whole package.

Raising Martha by David Spicer is booking until the 11th of February at Park Theatre 200.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Darren Bell.

*"Blackmail is an ugly word for a delicate operation."
"So's cunnilingus, but once you've said it everyone knows what you mean."

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