THE FRINGE / Not as funny as all that: Nick Curtis on the caperings of Penny Dreadful and the calm Song for a Bluefoot Man

DESPITE flashes of subtlety and a nominal plot, the Right Size's new show, Penny Dreadful (BAC, London), is the live theatrical equivalent of a Road Runner cartoon. The multilingual clowning theatre company specialises in brash physical comedy that is part mime, part slapstick and can just about be traced back to the traditions of the commedia dell'arte.

Here it's not just the desert setting and the musical stings that recall the old Warner Brothers duels between bird and coyote: the raw comedy, the looning around and the cruel physical punishment meted out to each character look familiar too. They also look a little dull after 60 minutes have passed: the company's excellent physical skills would benefit from rather less of that exaggerated capering and a bit more focus.

The story, as the title suggests, is a simple melodrama: jailor meets murderer; jailor loses murderer; murderer meets murderess; cue a deeply unhappy ending. As the company tells us at the start, it's a tale of grotesque violence, of passion, of intrigue and destiny, but such claims are made with a broad grin. If one were still in any doubt about the company's performance style, the costumes dispel it. The ragged clothes, too-short trousers and scuffed workers' boots are a virtual uniform, de rigueur post-Chaplin clown chic which wouldn't look out of place in street theatre.

And like street theatre, this has an expansive physical expressiveness that bolsters a story (devised from an idea by Sean Foley) that would otherwise fill 10 minutes. Rosa Finn (co-founder Micheline Vandepoel) mimes the justifiable homicide of her brutish hubby in a prologue and goes on the run.

Eventually she fetches up at the desert outpost where Richard the guard (Robert Thirtle looking remarkably like the young Peter Sellers) is waiting to hang Henry the killer (Stephan Kreiss, all mutton-chop whiskers and a moustache that begs to be twirled). Mistaken identities ensue; Richard thinks she's the answer to his classified-ad dreams; she thinks the escaped Henry is Richard.

So far so funny, but the story doesn't really progress from here. This whooping and prancing menagerie a trois moves to a desert store, and back to the outpost jail. The pratfalls, leaps and yelps are studded with the occasional, brilliant sleight- of-hand coup. There are also some clever verbal jokes to go with all the visuals, which further underline that the Right Size might be missing its full potential in its adherence to slapstick. This is energetic, frenetic and entertaining, but it's not as funny as the company thinks it is.

Song for a Bluefoot Man (touring, see below), by comparison, is positively restful. A co-production by Good Company and Black Theatre Co-Operative, it's a stage adaptation of Anglo-Caribbean poet James Berry's verse, and a largely successful, sweetly pleasing one at that. Poetry on stage can look horribly artless, but Berry's warm words lull and entice you with their easy rhythms and tidal cadences. If there's a danger to the almost narcotic spell they cast it's that their soothing beat nearly puts you to sleep.

The main problem with staging poetry is finding a structure, but this production by Sue Pomeroy and Joan Ann Maynard charts a neat life- cycle from birth (entering the world 'flesh-connected in a lace-up blood spatter') to death, charting Bluefoot's journey from lazy youth in Jamaica to maturity in Britain via a sojourn in post-War America. The passage from one land to another is marked by themes in the score - which intrudes only when the poems are poorly set to music - and the peeling back of the layers of Jennifer Carey's deceptively simple set.

If the poetic voice incarnated by the excellent Treva Etienne is soft, though, its themes are often steely: the racism Bluefoot encounters ranges from the overt prejudice of a segregated bus in the Deep South to the innocent enquiry of a friendly Quaker (played by Carol Cleveland in her exaggeratedly posh, all-purpose, white-chick voice) who wants to know precisely where in Africa Jamaica is. The letters home recited by a Caribbean woman (Joanne Campbell) are deftly executed in their wry humour but also carry the story of changing roles in a new land. And the death at the end is not just that of Bluefoot's mother but also of Martin Luther King and the ideas of Bluefoot's generation. Perhaps his most telling meeting is with a young urban graffiti artist who monologues lengthily and - to Bluefoot - incomprehensibly about his spray-can self-expression.

It adds up to an appealing if unthrilling evening of staged poetry, where most if not all of the lumps of that genre have been ironed out. The strength of the cast is a contributing factor but the prime reason it works must be the rare eloquence of Berry's expression of both the Jamaican and the black British experience.

'Penny Dreadful' plays at BAC (071- 223 2223) until 17 Oct

'Song for a Bluefoot Man' is at the Charter Theatre, Preston (0772 258858) to 9 Oct; the Minerva Studio, Chichester (0243 781312) 11-13 Oct; the Inkworks, Bristol (0272 421870) 14 & 15 Oct; Marlborough College, Wiltshire (0672 512071) 16 Oct; the Library Theatre, Birmingham (021-236 5622) 18 & 19 Oct; St George's Concert Hall, Bradford (0274 752000) 20 & 21 Oct; Southport Arts Centre (0704 540011) 23 Oct; the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon (081-688 9291) 25-30 Oct; the Maltings, Farnham (0252 726234) 9 Nov; the Gardner Arts Centre, Brighton (0273 685861) 10 & 11 Nov; and the Purcell Room, London (071-928 8800) 12 Nov

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before