saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
5th February 2014
Photography supplied by The Space
Depending on which end of the political spectrum you fall on, all this rain and the subsequent flooding could be down to a couple of things. If you're a Guardian-reading Green voter, you probably - fairly reasonably - assume it has to do with some sort of climate change science you don't quite understand. Or (if you're mad) you may agree with ex-Ukipper David Silvester and just blame the gays. With the very timely Ham, Mouths of Lions doesn't politicise the issue nor does it put a huge amount of religious stock in this updated Noah's ark tale. Instead, it's simply a story of one slightly damaged man trying to clamber out of his father's shadow and create a better world. Better, in this case, being a rather subjective term.
As the audience files into the Space, we're greeted by the titular character (played by James Askill) frantically loading up his ark, all nervous twitches, edgy glances and barely concealed panic. We're the good people, we're told, who have decided to seek refuge before the second great flood that will consume the world in 55 minutes' time. Ham knows because he's timing it. There's nothing to do now other than to (he emphasises with notes on the wall) realise there's "No exit", to "Have fun!" and, in an indication of his slightly totalitarian leanings, that "Ham is in charge". Of course, the most important of those is "Have fun!" but Ham is in charge.
What unfolds is 75 minutes of a combination of monologue and stand-up set in the presence of the most uncharismatic charismatic leader you're ever likely to encounter. With his Zach Galifianakis looks and Simon Pegg mannerisms, Askill rips Ham out of the pages of Genesis and never lets go, with a frenetic and demanding performance that, justifiably, sees him covered in sweat at the finish. He's part hilarious - delivering Nathan Wood's routine of getting birds on the original ark in sacks simultaneously giddily and sombrely. He's also part tragic, the vulnerability of Ham, his perceived failure in the previous doomed task and riddled with guilt after seeing his father naked. This is a man carrying a heavy load, deluding himself and paying penance against his subsequent curse. The only blight is Askill's tendency to do "that" voice, the highly technical comic industry term to highlight a certain intonation as overused by the aforementioned Pegg or Steve Coogan.
Nevertheless, he's a great match for Wood's witty writing, part confessional, part Live at the Apollo. It's a wonderful study of disappointment and failure, but also - at least until the final few minutes - of optimism and delusion. Everyone will be able to take something different from Ham's struggle, whether that be the bigger questions of duty and fate or a character study, a discussion on whether Ham's using a non-threat to simply act out and indulge his demons. And act out he does. But what's just as important here, what Wood and director Georgia Murphy really do well, are the silences.
You see, things don't go so well for us in that makeshift ark. The power goes out, leaving us in the literal and metaphorical dark for a rather long time until the Space's back wall becomes lit by a powerful torch leaving Ham on the balcony, looming over us, Godlike. This immediately ramps up the already high levels of discomfort as we're treated to, essentially, a shadow-puppet show for a long remainder of the piece. Yet it works beautifully. Murphy has a considered eye for challenging the audience without baffling them, and throughout Ham is pushing and pushing, but we never seem to give up on him nor the situation. Then again, there are no exits. A nod also to lighting and soundman Simon Gethin Thomas, without whom everything would crumble.
So problems? There was a minute's silence that didn't seem to last a minute and, given the constant reminders of time, really should have been. Arguably Ham bailing is just another suggestion that he's an unreliable narrator but in the moment, I wanted the audience to be tested and really pushed to the limit. And although the use of 80s Glasgow popsters Orange Juice's Rip It Up nicely evokes rainfall, it's perhaps a little too on the nose leaving us drowning in denotation. We get that this situation sees finality as definitely as Beckett's Endgame - Ham will be (and is) doing this every night there's rainfall, it's not just the world but the ark that's being ripped up and begun anew. The song gilds the lily. But those criticisms are merely two drops of acid rain in an ocean of greatness.
Granted, Ham may not be for everyone. It might scare your normal punter with its unusual staging, trying lead character and subject matter some may deem blasphemous (see the Northern Irish town's hastily reversed decision to ban the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Bible: Abridged show if you think I'm generating fake outrage). But it shouldn't. If you allow yourself to be swept in its current, you'll be drowning in theatrical pleasure. Don't let that laboured metaphor put you off.
Ham opened on 4th February and runs until 15th February 2014 at the Space.
Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)