views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Obsolete Tomfoolery
Etcetera Theatre
20th August 2018


Publicity image for Obsolete Tomfoolery

Photography provided by Sycorax Theatre Company

Helen Duncan was something of a Marmite figure in the 1940s - she convinced and mesmerised many with her seances, but she drew just as many detractors, including those who considered her a danger to the public, and even the war effort. She ended up being tried under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, and is a contestant for the title of Britain's last convicted witch.

I do enjoy the downright absurd, which is just as well because Sycorax Theatre's Obsolete Tomfoolery contains absolutely heaps of it. From an outwardly heavy and dramatic starting point, the production quickly descends into what can only be described as an acid trip of a history. The only vaguely coherent theme throughout the show is Duncan's life, presented in short episodes of... er... varying realism, interspersed with... I'm not really sure what. There is an impressively deadpan man in a dress (Shaun Connor Bentley), a newsreader with an unnecessarily rude name (Claire Duffell - that's not the rude name, that's the actress's name), and a useless chancer of a spiritualist (Eleanor Hill). A long reel of something is dramatically pulled from the arse of a distressed-looking Jessica Bates (she's welcome; credit like that is unquestionably why anyone goes into theatre - and she does a tidy Churchill too), Eleanor George chortles hysterically from behind a cardboard moustache, Katie Rice inexplicably goes around resurrecting dead soldiers - mostly with success - and Eleanor Pead quickly grows tired and impatient as a gloriously hammed-up court judge.

The acting is sound throughout, with the classic stage voices making for easy listening and the cast obviously strong on physicality. Although some of the singing is less-than-tuneful in places, given the absurdist nature of the piece there is a certain benefit of the doubt to be awarded as to whether it was intended. In any case, all is redeemed with an impressive harmony towards the end.

Far from being there to inform, the main aim of the piece is surely fun, and it provides plenty of it. The scenes explicitly covering Duncan's story - she was a weirdo, she took up spiritualism, she caused controversy and got tried - are predictable in nature and light on detail, so this was obviously never meant to go into any depth. The company clearly knew that and didn't let it bother them, and instead sought to make the show entertaining by branching out into the surreal. This raises a question though - did the show need to be about Duncan and witchcraft at all, or was it simply chosen on the basis that anything can be a plot device? The connection between the supposed subject matter and the finished product is definitely at the looser end of the scale.

Other elements then run the risk of sounding like they were bolted on as extra material - it is absolutely a point that Duncan probably attracted disproportionate attention because she was a) a woman, and b), in the words of the newsreader, a bit fat - however, with only passing mention of this later on, it is touched upon too little to qualify as the overall purpose. Or is the show meant to be a mockery of spiritualism? It certainly goes that way, and it gets a good reception - again though, it's unclear whether that's the main aim, and the question remains "What actually did I just see?"

All of this could have been a fatal flaw. Fortunately though, what Obsolete Tomfoolery lacks in clear purpose, it makes up for in presentation. This is a polished production with a strong cast, and its purposefully ridiculous nature is definitely infectious. Anyone looking for an hour of irreverent fun will enjoy it. Don't expect to learn much; do expect to laugh.

Obsolete Tomfoolery opened on 13th August and runs until 21st August 2018 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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