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Americana Absurdum

Brian Parks
Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, Southwark
(2004)

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This pair of very manic but highly sophisticated black comedies is a great challenge to a reviewer, as they tend to defy description. Try throwing together Evelyn Waugh, the Airplane movies, Samuel Beckett and Saturday Night Live and then fast forwarding and you may have some idea of the work of Brian Parks and director John Clancy.

The quality is never in doubt, as when they made their initial British appearance in Edinburgh four years ago, they won a Fringe First, having been awarded the equivalent in New York.

Vomit and Roses tells the often touching tale of a happy family of undertakers who face extinction at the hands of three corporate bandits in suits, two of them empty.

As Eva van Dok's Kea searches for a prom date who can stomach the smell of formaldehyde and finds a Mai Lai murderer, her parents, played by Nancy Walsh and David Calvitto, are fighting a legal battle to save their honour and their beloved business against a wicked lawyer, Ermine Miami, played with an evil glint in his eye by Paul Urcioli.

After the interval, Woverine Dream is an attack on American greed. It tells the stories of three groups all of whom are affected by an air crash. Mashie and Spoon Balata (Walsh and van Dok again) are the wittily named daughters of a golf pro who dies in the crash.

Calvitto's Wallace Stephens is both the owner of the airline and, bizarrely, the poet of the same name.

The final family features a junkie mother, down-at-heel father and two clown-sons, born in full regalia. The boys are employed as a double act, telling people of the loss of loved ones. The final significant character, the philosophical, dreaming wolverine, doesn't appear until the end but adds surprising pathos.

It builds to a courthouse finale that allows Urcioli, as Miami once more, to deliver a chilling but funny monologue.

The brief plot-lines give only a small indication of the pleasure of this evening's theatre. On one level, this is a sharp comedy packed with jokes delivered at breakneck pace. A lot show a deep literary feeling with many clever allusions, some too American to be appreciated over here but enough are extremely funny to anybody and travel well.

The play is also, on another level, a coruscating attack on the USA today - "a puzzling country", with its materialistic values questioned in oddly revealing ways, if often obliquely. A picture builds of a mad country depicted through madness.

The writing does not always make obvious sense but then neither did Beckett. It is very clever, packed with memorable imagery and has its own kind of poetry and logic.

Americana Absurdum is packed with unforgettable images that deepen the impact, as does John Clancy's superb direction. This keeps the pace at overdrive throughout and eschews theatre lighting for hand-held bulbs that create a really eerie effect, especially in red.

He is very well supported by the whole of the nine-strong ensemble cast, who have clearly worked together a great deal in order to achieve such a slick result.

This is not a production for those who like sedate, respectful work. By the end, you have to agree with the character who says that "the world is a scary and uncertain place".

However, if you like your theatre raw and satire biting, Americana Absurdum is something special and unlike anything currently on a British stage.

Peter Lathan reviewed "Vomit and Roses" at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher