EDINBURGH FESTIVAL '98: Two men go mad on Brecht

Last year, trapped in a bathroom. This year, the Right Size asks: what is a human being? Seriously.
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The Independent Culture
"HELLO MRS Spicer ...." OK, not the world's funniest line but that's because you can't see or hear it. Quite sane people at last year's festival could be heard imitating Sean Foley's simultaneously wolfish and sheepish delivery of the greeting as he popped, beslippered, to his corner shop for a pint of milk and an egg, to be blushingly confronted by his local vision of loveliness.

Actually, there was no pint of milk, no egg, nor even a corner shop. But try telling that to the audiences who collectively wet themselves. Foley and his partner-in-crime, Hamish McColl aka The Right Size, attached jumpleads to their audience's imagination in Do You Come Here Often? This wildly inventive, no, lunatic assembly of theatrical sophistication, slapstick, warmth, wit and deep silliness was the runaway sensation of the festival and unarguably the finest, funniest comedy ever written about two men trapped in a bathroom.

To universal amazement, they didn't even make the Perrier shortlist. "Too theatrical," sniffed the committee. Still, The Right Size had the last laugh, sailing into a smash-hit West End season. And now, in my best cinematic "Coming Soon" style, I must tell you: "They're back... and this time it's Brecht."

The guys have gone legit and, what's more, they've teamed up with Kathryn Hunter, best known for her work with Theatre de Complicite. "People say, `so, are you now going into texts?'," frowns McColl, the dark-haired one given to sterner characters. "But no, this is a one-off."

"There's the implication that we're going to leave all that juvenile stuff alone now," adds Foley. Happily, after Edinburgh, a tour and then the Almeida, they're going straight back to the juvenile and writing a series for Channel 4.

Nevertheless, they're relishing working on a finished script - translation by Lee Hall, who wrote the great radio success Spoonface Steinberg - thereby relinquishing a degree of responsibility. After 10 years of double-act shows, they still love performing together, but, as Foley growls: "Normally we have to write the bastard, too."

McColl and Foley are at the head of a rather long line of people who, until recently, had never heard of his satirical comedy, Mr Puntila and His Man Matti. Hunter had been invited by the Almeida to direct something to celebrate Brecht's centenary and the three of them had talked about working together for years, so she sent them the script. With each Right Size show, they've added a new ingredient, from magic and acrobatics to Alice Power's increasingly mad sets, so a collaboration via someone else's script looked perfect for fresh inspiration.

The question that the play posits is: what is a human being? "There's the suggestion that there could be an enormous friendship between my character Puntila and his servant," explains McColl, "but there can't be because of the social structure. I'm a landowner and he's a chauffeur, but in those mad farce moments where that friendship bursts through we can really use our double-act skills."

The toughest thing for them, let alone Hunter, is the knife-edge of the size and style of performance. Having them do their Right Size shtick to underline the comedy is one thing. On the other hand, they must match the play's serious writing without neutering their performances to the point where they turn into just two actors. It's like casting Robin Williams to be subdued in The Birdcage or Good Will Hunting. If these two are not going to do what they do best, why hire them in the first place? Foley describes Hunter as having had her beady eyes on this dilemma from the off. "Quite rightly, she immediately made us go the other way. Casting us because we were actors would have been stupid and we would never have done it."

They've reached that ghastly point in rehearsals, the first run-through. "It felt like we'd got concrete boots on," says a horrified McColl. In fact, it's less of an uphill struggle into unknown territory than you might think. At the risk of sounding completely barking, their own work is already extremely Brechtian. McColl admits that he knows little about the theories, "but I do know that he's saying: `this is happening, but I'm only playing at it'. We do that all the time. We play `I'm stuck in a bathroom', then step out and talk about it, snapping in and out of scenes. When we start making a show we say, `OK, you're a dentist and I'm going to come in'. Well, hang on a minute, there's a hundred people sitting out there, what kind of dentist's room is that? So then we say, `so, just pretend you are'. OK, so I'm in a white coat and funnily enough people believe you are a dentist. Weird." But damn funny.

Mr Puntila and His Man Matti is at the Traverse (0131-228 1404)