The Invisible Dot and Manchester International Festival
Pavilion Theatre, Festival Square, Manchester
On the surface, this looks like a typical Russian surrealist satire in style—until you see that it was written as long ago as 1865 by Dostoevsky, not known for his knockabout comedies, as a magazine short story.
This version has been adapted quite a lot by Tom Basden, but retains the concept of the original. Ivan (Ciarán Owens) is now an actor rather than a civil servant, and not a very successful one. His friend Zack (Simon Bird), a lawyer, is tasked by their other friends to persuade Ivan to give up the stage so they don't have to sit through any more of his increasingly obscure one-man shows.
However, on a visit to the zoo, Ivan is swallowed by a crocodile—but survives. The crocodile's owner refuses to cut open the animal to save Ivan and the law is on his side, as the crocodile is a business asset and "what's best for business is best for all of us". There's the first level of satire that still has a ring to it today.
Meanwhile, back in the zoo, Ivan is getting the audiences he has always craved and is even getting press attention, and so has decided to stay inside the crocodile, using his new fame to make political statements, including a fascinating tragic parable about the animals in the zoo being paid a wage with terrible results for the less-fortunate and less-popular animals—which is totally misconstrued by the public.
Ivan's new-found fame and purpose appeals to Anya (Emma Sidi), Ivan's ex whom Zack was hoping to marry. The cast is completed by Marek Larwood, who plays everyone else in the story, often with minimal changes of costume or hair.
Much of the play is put across as comic cross-talk between Ivan and Zack, which works well in principle and is often funny but goes on for too long—and at times appears under-rehearsed. The representation of the crocodile by an upright piano is certainly interesting visually, but I couldn't see any reason for it.
It is a production that I admired and occasionally enjoyed, but I'd lost patience with it before the end as what little story there is is stretched rather thinly over the 90-minute running time, making it seem drawn-out and repetitive. Condensed to an hour, I think it would be a lot snappier (if you'll pardon the pub).
But it's an interesting find as a Dostoevsky story given a lively modern twist by Basden in a tent in Albert Square (renamed Festival Square for the duration of the Manchester International Festival).
Reviewer: David Chadderton