Theatre Brothel

Various writers
Greyscale, Pin the Tail and Fuel
Almeida Theatre

Theatre Brothel publicity image

Theatre Brothel is part of the Almeida Festival (which runs until 31st July). It takes the form of six different plays (from three production companies), four of which are one-man or one-woman shows. Each member of the audience gets the chance to chose two at any particular performance (with a reduction in seat price if you go back to catch more).

It begins by offering each member of the audience a choice from two sets of three plays. They are listed with a "Magic Word" assigned to each, which may help in making a selection. If that doesn't give you a firm decision there is a discussion with one of the company who asks a series of questions, your answers to which are intended to guide him in selecting a choice for you. This involves parading through the basement and across the stage before you end up being given two coloured gaming chips which identity the plays you have been given. You then go back to the bar to wait until they are ready to start and you are called colour by colour to enter one of three different auditoria. This makes a very slow start to the evening that is scheduled to last twenty minutes after the advertised curtain up, perhaps it is longer, but its manipulation of the audience and what may be genuine 'selection' could all be part of the performance and seems designed to put the audience into participatory mode, though the long delay for those processed first is counter productive.

I can comment only on the two plays I saw, both of which turned out to involve the same author. Other critics will probably have seen a different selection.

Tonight Sean Campion Will Lecture, Dance and Box
By Sandy Grierson

Exactly what the title says, this is performed by Sean Campion playing a character called Sean Campion in red boxer's shorts and boots, tweed jacket and red cravat, too which he adds a fake mink coat and bowler, and he is set up with a lectern and a flip board (to turn tits images he recruits an audience member). His 'lecture' tells us about Arthur Craven, his great grand father, whom we learn was aged 22 in 1910. Campion met him for the first time only a year ago in a bar in Lisbon. Though it is not mentioned he must then have been 122, though perhaps that is not so surprising for this is a man who continually reinvents himself, if not actually experiencing reincarnation, presenting himself to the world as a huge range of different personalities some of them famous names and almost always linked with the famous, from being a nephew of Oscar Wilde to a boxing champion, poet, painter, writer, jewel thief, friend of everyone from Gide to Trotsky, lover of Myrna Loy, mixing with the futurists and the surrealists and popping up everywhere from New York to Buenos Aires.

Sometimes a member of the audience will be asked to help by reading something and at some point most people seem to be assigned to 'be' a character. They don't usually have to do anything just sit there representing them, though a tall fellow was called out to stand in for a boxer and partner Campion in a fight in which no blows are actually exchanged.

Campion declares at one point that this is all about transubstantiation but as members of the audience each fold a paper hat (Campion's significantly becomes a boat), they can make their own interpretation of what it is about.

For me it was about performance; about the power an actor can have over his audience for Campion holds them riveted by this surreal fictitious nonsense being passed off as truth. It is a demanding stint both mentally and physically. Campion performs it with enormous energy, a fine voice and great charisma. Unintentionally, it was also a demonstration of the control an actor can have over himself for though I noticed early on that, as he held a sheet of paper, his hand was shaking, but there was no sign of this is his rich voice and arresting features. This is one of those actors who could make the telephone book seem interesting.

By Lorne Campbell and Sandy Grierson

Receiving its world premier, this is a two-hander that starts off with a complicated and to me incomprehensible mathematical discussion about a complicated equation. I think it was meant to be gibberish but I can't be sure! No one in the audience admitted to being a professional mathematician so they certainly got away with it. There was a plot that set everything in a theatre in 1830 where a mathematician called Gaulles was presenting his theories - we were shown a model: (It was the Almeida with another tinier model inside it) and then things shifted to episodes of the mathematician's story.

As a boy Gaulles attended a boarding school that had a rule of silence, upset by the death of his father he fails key questions in his examination so cannot go to university. He is arrested for drawing a knife and, it is claimed, inciting revolution. Incarcerated in prison he develops his key theory which seemed to be that the problem's equation was based not on normal mathematics but upon the numerals of a clock face. His starting point was apparently not axiomatic truth but from 'an axiom of uncertainty.' But it is nothing as straight forward as that sounds and I longed for a little clarity in the muddle.

There is a little audience involvement with people being asked to read the examiner's questions or witnesses' court evidence and the whole audience is involved in a section that creates a piece of communal theatre; I won't say what for that would be a spoiler, but it lifts both the show and the audience's spirits.

Scott Turnbull gives a particularly lively performance as a North Eastern version of the mathematician and Sandy Grierson is a dour Scottish interlocutor but its game-paying confusion at times verged on the tedious and was certainly too extended. I don't know what it is about. The difficult process of interrogation to discover the truth perhaps, or the need to take wild steps into the dark? I'm all for experiment but this left me longing to see these performers in a good old-fashioned well-made play.

"The Theatre Brothel" plays at the Almeida until 9th July, then 12th - 16th July 2011.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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