The Establishment Eton Mess
Dan Lees and Neil Frost
Honky Bonk Theatre with CaroleW Productions
Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle
Even allowing for the Orwell caveat that English writers rarely portray their upper classes as anything other than comic buffoons—a habit he said we should be wary about—this is one of the funniest and most nimble-foooted pieces of theatre you could hope to see. It feels like it was written on speed.
It’s not a sketch show; one moment simply segues into the next. Nor, despite the fact the actors portray the same two characters, could it remotely be called a play.
Let us be happy with the word, an experience.
And though I say ‘written’, it’s obvious that the actors / writers Dan Lees and Neil Frost devise a basic template of a script and adapt it as the mood, the audience, and heaven knows what else, takes them. They not so much think on their feet as on their tip-toes and at times one will deliberately push the other into even higher levels of verbal absurdity in a spontaneously combustible manner which could never simply have been coldly written on the page. Only highly imaginative and talented actors can get away with this kind of thing. It’s impossible to think of this show being the same two nights running.
The Establishment very much has the words Edinburgh Fringe running through it. Like a Fringe show, it involves its audience a good deal but rarely in that frightening way that makes us shrink into our seats. You could say the actors bounce the piece off their audience.
Thus one audience member at Alphabetti—Newcastle’s new gem of a little theatre—is turned into a moose; a second is crowned Queen of England (the latter chosen one could run Helen Mirren a close second). When water is chucked about, we are offered protective brolllies.
Two latecomers arrived so the actors welcomed them in, then began the show again (it was different of course). Some of their humour reminded me of the dottiness of I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue, The Goon Show, Monty Python but without the safety net of a studio, or a film crew, both of which offer the security of a second / third / fourth take.
Sustaining this high tempo is highly demanding, a fact we only appreciate if it slips, which this never does. Nor is it simply a safe portrayal of upper class imbecility. We may roar with laughter at this duo, but slowly we realise they are far from harmless as the show dips its comic toe into arms dealing, tax dodging, boardroom shenanigans, fox hunting and the like. Thus the subversive edge is neatly wrapped in a belly laugh.
At times, its comic tastelessness disarms us—David Cameron dancing with a pig for instance—but the sheer exuberant energy, momentum and invention of the show makes it one of the most outrageously funny hours imaginable. Difficult to think of any moment in their lives that these two highly talented individuals would not be making us laugh. There is no set and just a handful of simple props. And of course two cockroach costumes for the finale. Why? See for yourself.
A small caveat is that, given the battered weakened state of our poor Brexit-battered nation and its rapidly shrinking influence in the world, this piece, especially the colonial references, could be seen as slightly out-of-time.
Against which, the damaging and rigid class system survives and if, as Blake said, energy is eternal delight, then this Eton Mess is probably eternal. Certainly a delight.
Reviewer: Peter Mortimer