When I read The Invisible Man as a boy, the detail that intrigued me most was the idea that any food consumed by the hero in his disembodied mode would be gruesomely visible to others.
Thereafter, I've always had a yen to see what a half-digested full English breakfast would look like suspended in mid-air. Though it's well within his range, master illusionist Paul Kieve stops short of affording us such a spectacle in this stage version. But to make up for that, there's certainly plenty of swirling ham, and not a little free-floating cod, in Ken Hill's endearingly daft and determinedly tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the H G Wells sci-fi classic.
"It's this ghost they're talkin' about," declares Maria Friedman's busty, narrow-minded battleaxe of a landlady, "I'm feelin' an emanation meself – unless I 'ad too many pickled eggs last night." Her remark will give you some indication of the tone of the show that presents the "'ideous 'appenings" at the bucolic village of Iping as an extended spoof with a music hall framework and a narrator in the shape of the tramp (a chirpy but wasted Gary Wilmot) who was terrorised into becoming the anti-hero's reluctant henchman.
This adaptation began life almost 20 years ago at the Theatre Royal Stratford East and watching Ian Talbot's current production, you wonder whether the smaller, more sophisticated Menier is the ideal venue for a romp that needs the anarchic warmth and happy-go-lucky party atmosphere that seems to be generated naturally at Joan Littlewood's old stomping ground. And when viewed close up, Paul Kieve's special effects begin to look a little less magical.
Their ingenuity and wit remain highly enjoyable, enhanced by the sepulchral mocking note hit by John Gordon Sinclair in the hero's dematerialised pronouncements. There's the room that seems to go berserk as it ransacks itself. There's the landlady's ample bosom that is jiggled up and down by an unseen molester. Knives, cash boxes, even a glass of port fly unaided through the air. But I no longer felt quite so baffled by the celebrated moment when the Invisible Man peels away his bandages to reveal the void beneath while still managing to suck on an insouciant cigarette. And it's disappointing that these devices fail to escalate in mayhem as the deluded, would-be benevolent despot ("There will be no dictators when I rule the world") institutes his violent reign of terror.
The engaging cast – which includes Jo Stone-Fewings as the deceptively silly-ass squire and Geraldine Fitzgerald as the pipe-smoking suffragette – throw themselves with a will into the mad miming fits whereby they feign wrestles with thin air and tugs-of-war with vacant handcuffs. I particularly enjoyed Christopher Godwin as the Squire's widely travelled, ludicrously know-all factotum. Calming the hysterical maid (excellent Natalie Casey) with a slap about the chops, he explains that "I was once a male nurse in Johannesburg." But again, because the production refuses to stagger its comic resources, it develops a wearing repetitiveness, arousing the suspicion that, like its titular character, this Invisible Man does not have much up its sleeve.
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