Review: Honest-to-goodness

ON THE LONDON FRINGE honestly, Young Vic Mourning Song, Cochrane
In Alfred Hitchcock's film Rear Window, broken-legged photographer James Stewart idles away his convalescence by staring out of the window of his apartment window and into the block opposite, where he discovers a multitude of dirty little secrets. Hitchcock's camera never ventures into the building which Stewart spies on, keeping its distance like a peeping Tom. If it had done, though, one would like to think it might have found something like the setting of honestly (Young Vic), a dimly lit Kafkaesque mansion inhabited by a small army of the dysfunctional, the lonely and the eccentric - not to mention the odd travelling goldfish salesman. It's not often that a title works so hard as it does for Hoipolloi Theatre's snortingly funny physical comedy about what the neighbours do when you're not looking. "Honestly!" is the word used to express amused exasperation at other people's ridiculous behaviour. Or, more quietly, it accompanies the revelation of an intimate secret. Then there are the times when, palms spread, it's used to round off an unbelievable tale. And those three things are what honestly is: knowing (though never cynical), occasionally intimate and, not least, a shaggy dog story.

The tale is simple. A young Welshman called Paul (Shon Dale-Jones) turns up at the apartment block to move into his new room. But before he can move in, he has to find his flat, and before he can do that he must encounter a host of loopy residents. Rosy, the janitor, acts as a gate-keeper when she's not sniffing people's dirty laundry. The landlord believes that God has chosen him to root out the corruption of his tenants, while a couple of youthful foot-fetishists play hide-and-seek in the corridors snatching at each other's heels, and a crazed fire officer checks the most unlikely places for blazes. As Paul seeks sanctuary from this madness, the exit disappears behind him. Like all shaggy dog stories, everything is in the telling. Juliet O'Brien and Mick Barnfather (the former Theatre de Complicite actor who last year directed Let the Donkey Go, another gloriously silly shaggy dog story) mix up the pace well, counterpointing the frantically absurd exchanges with well-judged moments of stillness. The cast of four all play well off one another, doubling-up roles, and timing the physical humour to perfection. They also manipulate the simple but ingenious set: carpets rolls that become chimney pots, a television aerial that turns into a giant sword, and four wooden trestles represent both the roof of the apartment and its ever-shifting walls. But holding it all together is Dale-Jones's straightman Paul, a mousy Everyman of the valleys with a battered suit and a battered suitcase, who wants nothing more than to be alone.

Alone is not something you want to be after seeing Mourning Song (Cochrane), Black Mime Theatre's five-woman show about death, which attempts to draw connections between a child suicide, a drug-dealer shot in the street and the death of a Vietnamese boatperson. Warning: this is not a show to chomp your Maltesers through. They even print the number of the Samaritans in the programme. If only being depressing were the same as being moving, though. The great void of the Cochrane's stage doesn't help matters, denying the subject-matter the intimacy it deserves. But the real problem is more fundamental. The parts of the story told through gestures are often incomprehensible, while the words are fatuous ("I want my life back. I mean I want to be me again," says Sylvie, the mother of the boy who has killed himself). Deadly dull.

'honestly' (0171-928 6363) to Sat; 'Mourning Song' (0171-242 7040) to Sat

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