Islands, Bush Theatre - review: Crude, rude, but not especially funny

The sniggering toilet humour feels inadequate for sending up this powerful breed of tax evaders

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Hunched, saggy breasted, and with a pair of swinging silver bollocks, Mary is the little god of her island, floating “30ft above Shitworld”. She's “got all the cherries“, she drawls. And she's called her island Haven. The rest of this comedy about tax evasion is about as subtle - but sadly makes no further points beyond aren't rich sods in tax havens just the worst?

Islands is crude, rude, but not especially funny; the sniggering toilet humour quite quickly feels inadequate for sending up this powerful breed. And if you don't like the word shit, stop reading now: it comes up a lot.

The play is written and performed by Caroline Horton, who’s had fringe hits with Mess and You’re Not Like Other Girls Chrissy. A cast of four play two further off-shore overlords (camped up drag performances from Seiriol Davies and John Biddle) plus Adam and Eve (Hannah Ringham, Simon Startin) as downtrodden workers who mustn't touch the cherry-tree of knowledge - or should that be wealth?

It’s set in a filthy, empty tiled swimming pool: very far from anyone's idea of paradise, as if fouled by their grubby souls. Meanwhile, the characters don't resemble 'wealth creators' as we know them, being instead grotesque clowns in streaked makeup, tutus and fake bellies.

The show, directed by Omar Elerian, has a chaotic cabaret air that at its most fevered is delivered with a blast, but too often scenes are overstretched in a running time of 105 minutes. The few songs that season it are slight, passing up opportunities for further satire. And the overarching allegorical structure is just too simple - albeit intentionally so - to feel very subversive.

This absurdist world would work as a madcap sketch or a manic, late-night 50-minute belch of anger. Here it’s laboured. There were walk outs.

Not that all the excrement and simulated sex is actually very provocative: it’s too silly for that. The financial crash comes - cued with an extended, amplified shitting sound. “Northern Cock” and “Peeman Brothers” go down. A sham internal investigation takes that phrase all too literally, stuffing the "Independent Fanny Ombudsman" up Mary’s vagina with a squelching noise. When the words “tax evasion” start to get whispered about Haven - “don't use the T word, it's like nails on a blackboard!” - the islanders briefly convulse in fear. But it's nothing sob story interviews and pledges for more transparency can't fix. They even turn the blame back on the “shitizens”: austerity measures! Sell off the hospitals! Stop the scroungers! “Shitworld should get their own house in order...”

Horton, who wrote the play following discussions with John Christensen of The Tax Justice Network, is rightly picking at a societal scab here, one that should make us uncomfortable. And the conclusions she draws are hardly hopeful, suggesting the rich will always manage to sail above the shit. Islands, however, really wallows in it.

To 21 Feb;