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 Musical by Damon Albarn


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