The final weekend of the Fringe presents tough decisions. Tychy opted to spend Sunday night watching FreeRange Productions’ “Montmorency” rather than the continually shelved “The Shit/La Merda.” At this late hour, I am still clearly not cut out for serious theatre criticism.
In “The Shit,” a stark naked clown squats on top of a pillar, ranting and shrieking about contemporary Italian politics. Despite sounding like a spoof advert for a Fringe show from the pages of Private Eye, “The Shit” is, at least according to Broadway Baby, “truly exceptional.” The BTG judges it to be “truly shocking and brilliant,” whilst the Stage calls it an, err, “unforgettable one-hander.” I am sure that “The Shit” is a masterpiece, but it sounds like a bloody miserable evening at the theatre. “The Shit” should have found its way to my theatre critic heart, but it has ricocheted off, producing a weak tinny sound. I have rung false.
“Montmorency,” which finishes up tonight at C on Chamber’s Street, is my sort of show. It sounds entertaining, middlebrow and agreeably Victorian. Actually, it spooks me somewhat, as I had deemed myself an expert in nineteenth-century fiction and yet I have never heard of Montmorency before. It transpires, however, that Montmorency was created in our own century by the children’s author Eleanor Updale. I would be less of an intellectual if I had heard of him.
Matthew Hopkinson was previously seen in “Right Honourable Member” (reviewed on Tychy here). If you stick a top hat on top of him, he is suddenly handsome and distinguished enough to be a Victorian hero. Unfortunately “Montmorency” – or at least Updale’s original book – is completely dotty. Monty has fallen into a “grinding machine” (quite inexplicably) but survived, thanks to the skill of the pioneering surgeon Dr Farcett (Philip Dunster). Monty is sent to prison, and then released to become a gentleman thief a la Raffles.
This character has been inflicted upon the world to expose Victorian hypocrisy, although quite why Victorian hypocrisy needs any more exposure in 2012 remains unclear. Monty has been taught the manners of the respectable Victorians in a prison cell by a madman (James Blake-Butler). He robs the homes of the wealthy by emerging from London’s new sewer system in the dead of night. As a superhero, he is effectively “Shit Man,” flushing himself down the toilet and then arising from the U-bends of his victims (probably – the play is unclear on the precise details.) But, with the symbolism as unignorable as a fresh turd, Monty’s daytime respectability is contradicted by the night-time aromas which are connected with his moneymaking. He is, in this respect, the ultimate Victorian gentleman.
The morality of this play is pointless and the cast largely ignore it. Hopkinson vetoes the groaning moral complexity of Montmorency’s story by presenting him as simply a nice guy, although he looks appropriately pained when the madman is eventually strung up by the authorities instead of him. The cast submit vigorous performances and the play is atmospheric and often entertaining. Butler is capital when blowing gale force as the paranoid schizophrenic, and the events of the story steal towards a powerful final scene in a gentleman’s club which leaves you wishing that there was another half an hour of this play.
On the whole, good lively theatre. But was Shit Man better than The Shit? We will never know.