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77

What a silly play! “The Curing Room,” which is presently showing at midday in the Pleasance’s King Dome, has been seemingly brought to the Fringe by a theatre company of naturists. The setting is WW2’s Eastern Front, where Russian regiments were blown away like dandelion clocks. We join seven Soviet soldiers who have been put living in the tomb, or left naked in a cellar somewhere beneath Poland by their fleeing Nazi captors. They have a drain to defecate into, but nothing to eat. The days will turn into weeks without any Great Escape.

So why is this story being told? “The Curing Room” implicitly promises that its characters are going to be bestialised and reduced to cannibalism, and everything proceeds largely as one would expect. Perhaps we are only watching in order to be satisfied that these soldiers will suffer and die in a proper spirit of dignity.

A better writer than David Ian Lee might have found something worthwhile to take from this story. But a calculation seems to have been made, somewhere along the line, to perform the play without a stitch in order to clothe it in authenticity. The calculation doesn’t pay off and the nudity becomes oddly, almost mysteriously, lacklustre.

These fresh pink soldiers often look like they are embroiled in an altercation in a tennis-club changing room, particularly when they flick their pointed, theatrical slap-punches at each other. There is none of the haggard ghastliness of real suffering, and yet the play is not brave enough to turn to the waiting alternative: the Jean Genet prison experience, the sado-eroticism of humiliated men bubbling in each other’s juices and gnawing each other’s bones. Nothing can be more extravagantly erotic than cannibalism, but it here pales into something grimy and rather cheerless.

Luckily, all of the soldiers’ penises are roughly the same size – if one was bigger than all the others then the entire play would be, in all sorts of profound and subtle ways, completely unbalanced. Yet Lee’s characterisation is so two-dimensional, with each character standing for a designated value or attitude, that these men somehow never look fully naked.

Most of the story is gibberish. How can Lieutenant Leonid (Will Bowden) break his Captain’s neck in this stone cell without waking any of the other five soldiers? How can these men still be so sprightly after nine days without any food? They yell, pirouette, sing sad songs, recite scripture and deliver momentous revelations about their lives, for this is one of those plays in which each character is a bag of unremarkable secrets which has to be laboriously unpacked. One doubts that men who had been genuinely driven to cannibalism (ie by hunger) would carry it out with so much parliamentary debate and procedure. Oddly, considering that by one o’clock the play is delaying lunch, the audience look generally hungrier than the cannibals on stage.

When Leonid sneers at his comrades for their “bourgeois naivety,” this play’s death-knell has been rung. “The Curing Room” is best when it is entertaining rather than profound: there is some funny goofing around with a bat that lives in the cell, and a joke about a sausage which I won’t give away because it is the lone highlight of the show. There is screaming and blood, sweaty buttocks and severed heads, but somehow “The Curing Room” has turned cannibalism into a picnic. Its generous buffet of meat does not whet the appetite.

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