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The Bald Soprano
Etcetera Theatre
3rd August 2015


Publicity image for The Bald Soprano

Photography provided by UCLU Runaground

Mr Smith (Maxim Sinclair) and Mrs Smith (Hannah Donelon) are talking about soup. The conversation couldn't be any more boringly British and polite than if they started talking about the dreadful weather we've having lately and the number of queues they'd joined that day for no explicable reason. When one of the Smiths moves, the other moves too, in what feels like a recoil instinct rather than the sort of synchronicity that long term couples tend to acquire. Their would-be dinner guests, Mr Martin (Alberto Lais) and Mrs Martin (Frances Keyton) lead a similarly dull life - so much so that after doing the same old things day in day out they've forgotten what the other looks like, and that they're actually married.

Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play, The Bald Soprano - aka The Bald Prima Donna - attacks our inability to communicate - whether that be the international middle-classes or simply the British. Originally performed in 1950, that's probably a fair and enduring criticism. Yes dear, no dear, why of course I'm listening, dear. People made fun of us Brits back then, and the joke still stands now. This adaptation by UCLU Runaground is actually one of two competing for attention in this year's Camden Fringe, suggesting that theatre makers do still see this work by Ionesco as relevant. Personally, I'd agree with that, but as with any Absurdist piece, it's an acquired taste.

Make-up artist Kira Amin smothers the entire cast in white and black face paint, underlining the ludicrous nature of the piece and giving a nod to the miming and clowning tradition. The ensemble are largely dressed in black with minimal props, but Amin separates out the Fire Chief (Oliver Marsh) with some flame coloured facial accents. The simplicity of the design works really well with the black box theatre setting, leaving the focus the non-sequiturs and deliberately frustratingly circular arguments. This is a story all about wordplay, and director Emily Louizou correctly retains that emphasis.

James Melling's ticking sound design combined with Louizou's clockwork movement cleverly stresses the monotony of time passing for these quintessentially English characters and makes them almost seem like mechanical toys, rather than fleshed out people. However, the impact of this is let down by by some horrible execution. The humming and crackling never settle down and disengage us from the action. Given neither show in the before and after slots struggled with the sound equipment, this was hopefully just an opening day issue - but one which did unfortunately detract from the production.

The Martins' maid, Mary (Lucie Trémolière) delivers a damning assessment of her employers and their friends, overstepping her class boundary and being generally unimpressed. She brings some pithy humour to the piece, but most of the laughs do come from Donelon's wonderfully enthusiastic and excitable delivery, with occasional overblown outbursts from her on-stage husband, Sinclair. The Smiths may be a mundane pair, but they still manage to be ridiculous with it.

As far as Ionesco goes, this is a relatively accessible version, so if you fancy dipping your toes into Theatre of the Absurd, now's the time. This may be bizarre, curious, strange, but it's an intelligent hour-long staging with some nice finishing touches.

The Bald Soprano opened on 3rd August and runs until 6th August 2015 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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