This is the kind of juxtaposition Peter Barnes loves. Irreverence is his trustiest weapon, and, as the lead character Mallory says, "nothing is sacred or powerful unless you make it so". Thus Christ steps off a crucifix to kvetch about his father, and Skelton, who longs for death, rails against the spring: "All that renewal."
Barnes's model tone, and imagery, draws upon the sardonic grotesquerie of Brueghel and Bosch and this new play is set in the apocalyptic closure of the Middle Ages, specifically after the Battle of Tewkesbury, 1471. The Wars of the Roses pauses to gasp for breath, and Mallory, a saddened captain, sets off for home. His companions are the reluctant survivor Skelton, Davy, a mercenary boy, Bess who knows the world is too weary for her hard-bitten wisdom, and later Kell, a priest who has defrocked himself.
Although the home and family Mallory abandoned have been destroyed, Mallory continues what becomes a metaphorical quest in which home becomes "Home". Acquiring a new wife on the way, he and his band battle on.
They traverse an horrific, symbolic landscape brilliantly realised in Stephen Brimson-Lewis's design, with its glass floor where the dismembered dead are buried like specimens in a case. Under Alan Burrett's lighting this becomes by turns a skating lake, a swamp and a river. Even so the play's allegorical weight becomes hard to bear, not least because the work contradicts itself in both style and substance. Skelton says life is a journey; Davy says it is a race; Bess says it is a dance. Led by her, they then perform a beautiful little sand shuffle. In that hint of Wilson, Keppel and Betty is the irreverence again, and dancing which is graceful, pointless and stays on one spot is the right metaphor for this vision.
But Barnes finally lays more stress on Mallory's sacred journey, and despite Gerard Murphy's imposing, welted presence, the character is empty, has little to say and ends as a surprisingly romantic hero silent upon a snowy peak, fixed forever in the icy fastness of the purity of his vision. If ever there was a moment for Boom Boom - or Bert Brecht - this is it.
Yet when the comic cannonfire is at its thickest there are plenty of misses. In the first, long 70 minutes, although Barnes's extravagant imagination is pedalling hard, and the costumes waving frantically, director Matthew Lloyd never seems to lift the show to a manic enough level. The best moments are in the acting: Greg Hicks's saturnine Skelton, Paul Jesson's pained joviality as Kell, Richard Bremmer's lanky Crouchback and, best of all, a performance of wonderful ease and subtlety from Dilys Laye as Bess, really the play's most interesting character - its true Mother Courage.
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