When picturing the rebirth pangs of London theatre, I never imagined anything quite as odd and hilarious as this. Based on an award-winning comedy podcast in which two divorced men exchange voice messages, it’s barely a drama, yet it scales absurdist heights of fantasy.
David Babani’s production inaugurates his Menier Chocolate Factory’s new studio, a forbidding basement that formerly housed the Bunker Theatre and smells of damp. As the show’s subtitle states, it’s sometimes highly offensive. I had a whale of a time.
Roger is a gentle soul, struggling to survive on dwindling benefits and menial catering jobs but quietly, hopelessly dogged in his hopes of winning back ex-wife Clare and teenage son Jamie. He’s played like an affectionate, beaten dog by Dan Skinner, who co-wrote both play and podcast with Harry Peacock, and was Angelos Epithemiou on Shooting Stars.
Brian (Simon Lipkin) is a narcissist hedonist in sockless loafers who bullies his friend into increasingly outlandish schemes. One minute Roger is impersonating the ghost of Romanian dictator Nicolae CeauÈescu at a dodgy séance: next he’s security, then collateral, in a poker game in an abattoir; then he’s enlisted in a plot to build a concrete “autobahn” over Asia’s silk road.
At first, I couldn’t quite believe I was just watching two men leaving each other messages on flip-phones (it’s set in 2011). But the show draws you in with its mix of banality, tragedy and lunacy. Roger shares a flat with a nearly-blind 82-year-old woman, with lavatorial consequences. Brian sleeps in a marijuana farm in student digs. Both men love James Cameron’s Avatar. They address each other, hollowly, as “mate”.
This excruciating banality is underscored by CGI backdrops of charity shops and bus stops, and it’s the springboard for ideas of breathtaking silliness that echo the Goons and Monty Python. The creators of those shows never joked about bestiality, pegging or “shelving a speedball” to compensate for the dulling effects of heroin, it’s true. But they’d all surely admire a squirm-inducing scene involving a pair of bolt-cutters that’s played in complete darkness.
Either you’ll respond to the don’t-give-a-monkey’s audacity on show here or you won’t. The first half is short, the second half long, because of the necessity to get Skinner out of a costume that largely consists of pig entrails. Babani’s production really doesn’t feel like a play, but it doesn’t feel like anything else either. You have to suspend disbelief, and accept that a loser like Brian could compete, and lose, in increasingly high-stakes enterprises. And that Roger would always go along with him.
Once you do, Roger’s Panglossian optimism seems almost heroic. A bit like opening a second auditorium in your theatre after a pandemic that threatened to close it entirely. This is a mad endeavour all round, and I wholeheartedly salute it.
Menier Chocolate Factory, until 18 Dec; menierchocolatefactory.com