While male friendships that focus on beer, beer and more beer are a familiar British tradition, they are not usually the subject matter of plays.
While male friendships that focus on beer, beer and more beer are a familiar British tradition, they are not usually the subject matter of plays. And that is one of the reasons why the physical-theatre company Frantic Assembly was acclaimed for its originality when it first performed Hymns, in 1999. But in 2005 the content seems rather dated and simplistic.
Hymns is a sadistic black comedy that starts when four friends, Scott, Steven, Karl and Simon, meet up at the funeral of another friend. Deciding to go to the pub to honour his memory, they fall into their old ways as soon as they get inside the pub door. As the bad jokes start to flow - "What do you call a man with a rabbit up his arse? Warren" - you feel sympathy for men who are clearly straining to reproduce a well-rehearsed performance of friendship. At regular intervals they break into physical routines, dangling off ladders, jumping across furniture and balancing in impossible positions. The movement exposes the demands of their friendship.
The text paints a picture of male camaraderie in the mould of the Nineties lad culture of Men Behaving Badly. That said, the joy of watching Frantic Assembly is that its unique style breathes fresh air into this old material.
The dialogue is punctuated by innovative physical set pieces. At one point, the characters are each encouraged to share their feelings with the rest of the group as a means of coming to terms with their loss. In turn, each sits on a chair that is balanced on its hind legs, supported by the rest of the cast, on top of a table. The stage is lit by one light, shining torturously into his eyes. The chair rocks to and fro, creaking ominously in the darkness beneath each victim; until the last man climbs down, no one can be sure how this gruesome, confessional game will end. Such episodes show how effectively Frantic Assembly can tell a story, regardless of subject matter.
The script is no masterpiece. The final revelation that the state of the men's friendship has led indirectly to their friend's death is predictable. But the cast handle the dialogue with energy and precision, every line sailing toward the audience on a sea of testosterone. The text also has a moralistic edge: as long as you listen to your friends' needs and answer the phone when they call, they won't kill themselves. Only the high performance values prevent this production from seemingly horribly self-righteous.
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