Permanent Brain Damage Purcell Room, London

THEATRE
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The Independent Online
Quick question: what is one left with when the magic is taken away? The answer, for those unfortunates who missed the first visitation to the UK of Richard Foreman, pillar of the American avant-garde community, is, apparently: the magic. Permanent Brain Damage (Risk It! Risk It!), performed for the last three nights as part of Meltdown, groans under the weight of this and like-minded paradoxes. Attempting to figure out what, if anything, Foreman is on about is a bit like trying to ascertain whether aliens really did land at Roswell. The very absence of proof that anything significant happened could quite easily be used to suggest that it did. If we left the show none the wiser, then maybe that's because it taught us a valuable lesson. Maybe. The guiding spirit of the way-off Broadway Ontological-Hysteric theatre company not only has a flair for titles (try My Head Was a Sledgehammer) but also, after 19 years and 40 plays, perfect strategies for utterly perplexing his audiences.

What we got was mayhem as tightly organised as a Reclaim the Streets demo. In a Kafkaesque drawing-room - its walls lined with copies of a sinister black-and-white portrait, its floor strewn with litter and all points in between criss-crossed with stalactite wires and stalagmite bulbs - a bald man was subjected to 90 minutes of impenetrable humiliation by five people whose only common thread seemed to be an appalling retro dress- sense. His knees were tested with a toy hammer, his head forced through whatever lay to hand (a large white disc, a mini-safe, a picture frame), his body repeatedly bundled in and out of a sack. With his white suit, big beard and nasty cigar, he looked like the sort of caricature capitalist pig who deserved everything he got. But, as Foreman's laconic voiceovers suggested - in a tone that blended the rasp of the Cadbury's Flake ad with the weariness of a Hampstead therapist - this man, who had lost "that emotional kick", wasn't he a bit like you and me? Well, yes, anyone would have "empty, sad eyes" if they watched this nervous collapse endlessly restated and physically mimicked. Sophistically rediscovering "the magic" after all that made Foreman sound more like a vacuous politician than a philosopher manque. The only way out from the neurotic state the piece described was, in reality, the Way Out.

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