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Theatre review: Narrative, Royal Court Upstairs, London


Anthony Neilson's work at the Royal Court has been remarkably varied in tone and psychological provenance. It has ranged from a telling fantasia on the operations and import of bipolar disorder (in The Wonderful World of Dissocia) through to a piece (Relocated) that raised the spectre of the Josef Fritzl case and ripped the scab off our sense of the atrocity and it has incorporated a Yuletide show for young people in Get Santa. This latest piece, called with a slightly irritating baldness Narrative, is not at the X-rated end of Neilson's fertile and multiform imagination, but neither is fun-for-all-the-family (the theatre suggests that it is suitable for 14-year-olds upwards).

It's a work of jokey-serious and rather unrelenting self-reflexivity, having been devised in improvisatory fashion through the rehearsal process by the sharp-witted seven-strong cast. As the title suggests, the theme is story-telling: what does a sequence of events need, in the re-telling, to qualify as a narrative? And secondarily and less in focus here, what is the input in devised pieces of the actors' offstage personalities? 

Neilson directs the proceedings with a deadpan wit and a nice feel for the melodrama and the absurdity of disproportion. We begin with the cave paintings at Lascaux and the conundrum of what it is that's being depicted in the ambiguous aftermath of a face-off between a man and a bison. Which of them is the true protagonist? Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with photographs of themselves as children, all of the cast gradually develop bison horns as they act out overlapping stories: in one, a mother campaigns against the acne-cure drug that allegedly drove her teenage son to suicide; a man is handed a photograph of an arsehole but the question of why and whose continues to elude him as his career takes off and he finds himself in Hollywood cast as Elastic-Man, rather to the chagrin of his less successful friend; a young woman kills her best friend in a knife attack etc.

My reaction veered between one of intrigued amusement and admiration for the almost musical development of the motifs and preoccupations and a bored tetchiness at its bell-jar like suffocation (nearly all the characters are in the media, for instance). You can only signal so many shaggy dog stories before the dog starts to moult violently or succumb to mange. And it would need a more philosophically interesting take on inconsequentiality than you get here to keep you glued to a show that signals too early that inconclusiveness is its foregone conclusion.

To 4 May; 020 7565 5000