Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Man Who Cracked

Devised by the company
Spike Theatre at the Town Hall Theatre, Hartlepool
(2004)

Paranoia is the central theme of The Man Who Cracked, devised by Liverpool-based Spike Theatre under the direction of Glenn Noble: the "Reds under the beds" paranoia of the United States in the fifties, the paranoia of the self-styled alien abductees, the paranoia of US TV ratings wars, and paranoia of the individual subjected to more stress than (s)he can take.

When an on-air accident kills the star of a very cheesy live TV soap, George Wilson, operator of the "Applause" machine, is catapulted from total obscurity to taking over the role. From then on his two worlds - real home and soap home - begin to merge and he is also sucked into the world of the alien abductee through the loony Timmy. The pressures build and he cracks.

George, played by Paul Duckworth, reminded by irresistibly in character and appearance of Jeff Rawle as George Dent in Channel 4's Drop the Dead Donkey. He also had the most moving line in the show: when his wife says to him, "You're a somebody now", he replies, "I was never a nobody." There was real pathos there, because Duckworth underplayed the line beautifully.

A cast of five play fourteen characters between them as we move through echoes of fifties' TV soaps (complete with continuous product placement dialogue), fifties' science fiction, The Truman Show and even, right at the end, a suggestion of Groundhog Day. There are songs ("Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not watching you" is the actually quite impressive number at the end), stylised movement, puppets and models, and a very impressive exploding TV screen, but they don't quite add up to the Total Theatre which, a programme note tells us, is the company's aim.

The company handle the character changes well, relying more on facial expression, voice and body language than on costume changes (which are token), and, for an obviously low budget small-scale touring company, the set is flexible enough to accommodate the real and the TV home, as well as allowing some interesting effects, including, right at the start, a clever send-up of a typically fifties soap title sequence.

The production, however, does have some hallmarks of a devised piece, notably the kind of blurring of focus which input from a number of sources can cause when it is not focused by a single writer. In some ways it is rather reminiscent of the kind of thing we find quite frequently on the Edinburgh Fringe - although, it has to be said, better done than most of its Fringe counterparts.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan