The Bald Prima Donna

Eugene Ionesco
Poor Players Theatre Company
Liverpool Unity Theatre

The Bald Prima Donna publicity photograph

Legend has it that Ionesco wrote The Bald Prima Donna after learning English from a set of old phrase books. He was inspired by the banal and archaic language and bizarre exchanges to glimpse the meaninglessness of life beneath the wittering, the endless need for words to shut out the deafening silence at the heart of human existence. Maybe that’s the difference between me and a great writer; raised on the equally bizarre famille Marsaud, all I did was doodle in my exercise book and look at the 5th year girls playing netball.

Poor Players have established a reputation for solid, professional productions with the emphasis on good acting, and with Bald Prima Donna they pretty much live up to it; only a rather laboured and presumably inexperienced performance by Lois Malloy’s maid showing any real flaws. Chris Rogers is wonderful as the pompous patriarch Mr Smith, ably assisted by Caroline Walker’s Mrs Smith, at times the epitome of the brittle niceness of the English middle classes.

Danny Welsh’s Mr Martin gets off to a rather nervous, almost diffident, start, which is a pity, as once he relaxes and settles into the role he shows excellent comic ability and fine stage presence. The marvellously named Julie Gjortz Howden achieves a sense of bewildered wonder as Mrs Martin that is a joy to watch. Stewart Hulme attacks the part of the fire chief with relish.

Andrew Neil’s lighting design is excellent, Ann-Marthe Havikbotn’s direction is crisp and shows fine understanding of the text, although her decision to confine the play, except for the story telling, to a narrow strip of stage, did leave me longing for a bit of visual depth.

There are no great visual fireworks here; the emphasis is solidly on good acting, and Havikbotn has assembled a very capable cast and drawn good performances from all of them. On the evidence of tonight’s performance, Mr Welsh could relax and trust his own abilities more, and would be well justified in doing so, and any shortcomings in Ms Malloy’s performance can be solved by getting a few more productions under her belt, which hopefully she’ll do.

The Bald Prima Donna is a milestone in Western theatre, worth seeing for that alone, but in Havikbotn’s capable hands, her cast have handed in a production that is funny, strange and joyful.

Highly recommended.

Reviewer: Ged Quayle