The Roman Bath
Stanislav Stratiev, in a new version by Justin Butcher
Written more than thirty years ago and only now getting its British premier in this production by Russell Bolam, Bulgarian Stratiev's absurdist comedy is firmly rooted in the Communist era. Its satire of petty bureaucracy and intellectual arrogance were clearly intended to have much wider resonance and stand for bigger issues than appear on the surface but this is the classic situation of the little man against those with more pull than he.
The plot centres on what happens when workmen ripping up woodworm infested floorboards discover a Roman bath beneath that dates from the time of the Emperor Pompilianus (with the stress on the long 'a' for comic effect). This isn't a developer building a skyscraper office block held up by archaeological investigation; it's an accidental discovery beneath someone's home. You hear of such discoveries: a piece of mosaic or the arm of a statue in the garden and they dig the whole place up, so the owner keeps quiet and doesn't report it - but this owner is away at the seaside. When he gets back he's lumbered!
We know about things before he does. A television crew of hopeless incompetence are already interviewing the builders while he is losing his temper with a dedicated taxi telephone station that suddenly starts to tell him off, which leads to him snogging the telephone in an appeal to come and collect him.
Zaniness piles on zaniness. An archaeologist (Bo Poraj) has already started excavating a find that he thinks will launch his career, a crooked antiquities entrepreneur (Jonathan Rhodes) has got wind of things and offers a life of luxury on the shores of Lake Como if the owner becomes his accomplice, but little man Ivan (Ifan Meredith) just want to live in his home.
Some hope, with an 8m x 8m bath and more that may lie beyond his home being taken over! A property agent (Wendy Di Matteo) has a client dying to buy the apartment complete with its archaeological treasure; a life guard appears (Lloyd Woolf), appointed by the town council to ensure the safety of the swimmers in this new local facility (sans swimmers, sans water), a local party boss (David Schall) to take credit for the new acquisition. None of them pay any attention to poor Ivan and his needs - indeed the lifeguard insists on repeatedly staging a waterless rescue to justify his existence. The only person who does think about him is the archaeologist's girlfriend who takes a real shine to him.
The whole company give it tremendous vitality and play it throughout with tremendous energy. It is certainly funny but why wasn't I convulsed with laughter? Some people, some of the time, certainly were but why not me?
Partly I think is the use of the space. With an audience stretched out along one side of this large studio - which doesn't make for maximum audience cohesion - there was just too much space to feel the claustrophobia of being trapped in an apartment taken over by others and wrecked. Jean Chan's set, surrounded by plastic sheeting, was certainly uncomfortable and unhomely but huge!
It seemed this could either by played as a farce about very real people triggered by one outrageous upheaval or you could plump for a commedia-like stylization of types and this production hasn't quite decided or found a different way of doing it. There is a difficulty to in that each new intruder seems just more of the same rather than producing an escalation of chaos and madness that would pitch the comedy higher.
Enjoyable yes, but something missing that makes it a great romp.
At the Arcola Theatre until 15th May 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton