Review: Abducting Diana at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

The media has long had the power to influence (some might say manipulate) our hearts and minds – but 2018 seems a particularly relevant moment for a revival of Dario Fo’s Abducting Diana, if only to prove that we’ve learnt nothing since the play was first written in 1986.

Media tycoon Diana Forbes McKaye is in the middle of a romantic liaison with a guy called Kevin when she’s kidnapped by three masked figures. However, she quickly turns the tables on her incompetent abductors and concocts a plan to cut out the middleman, make them all rich, and save her own skin. Quite straightforward, you might think. Except that Diana isn’t really Diana, Kevin isn’t really Kevin, there’s a man in the fridge with electrodes attached to his halluxes (that’s his big toes to you and me)… and where did that priest with the big nose come from?

As you might imagine, everything gets rather chaotic, rather quickly, with existing characters switching allegiances, and new ones popping up just when you thought the story couldn’t get any more complicated. Such is the air of general mayhem that the play almost forgets to make its point, and the characters have to return to the stage in the final moments to remind us why we’re all there – namely, corruption in high places and the exploitation of the working classes (in this scenario the hapless kidnappers, who seem to come out of every allegiance a bit worse off).

The company are enthusiastic and deliver some strong comedy performances, although in all but two cases, Fo’s characters don’t give them a huge amount of material to work with. As the only one of the three kidnappers we really get to know, Marius Clements has the thankless task of delivering most of his lines from inside a fridge, but rises to the occasion with spot-on comic timing. And Elena Clements plays Diana with cool sophistication and withering sarcasm, keeping her head when all around her are losing theirs – which has the unfortunate side effect of leaving us a bit confused over whether we’re supposed to cheer or boo her resourcefulness.

There are a few issues with Michael Ward’s production; not all the chaos feels entirely deliberate, and there are times – particularly when everyone’s on stage at once – when pace and volume could both come down a notch to ensure the audience is able to keep up with the plot’s more complex twists and turns. It’s also not very clear when the play is set; some of the biggest laughs are inspired by the kidnappers donning masks that feature the faces of Trump, Farage, Boris and the like – but while these topical references to the ruling elite make perfect sense in light of the play’s message, they feel confusingly out of place in a room where people still use typewriters, tape recorders and cheque books.

If you’re after sharp political commentary, Abducting Diana is possibly not the play you’re looking for. What it does offer, however, is high-energy, absurdist fun, performed by a committed cast who are obviously enjoying themselves immensely. Though at times a little unpolished, the play promises an hour of farcical mayhem, and on that score it certainly delivers.

Abducting Diana is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 17th March.

<em>Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… ;)</em>

Review: One Was Nude and One Wore Tails at the Hen and Chickens

Guest review by Ross McGregor

Dario Fo’s lesser known one act play One Was Nude and One Wore Tails bears all the trademark satirical prods and nods that you would expect from the mind that wrote Accidental Death of An Anarchist.  There’s some plot, some characterisation, and a few set pieces but it thankfully never really attempts naturalism or a cohesive narrative, and you can take what you want from it. Do you fancy a cutting social commentary on how the wealthy (personified here by a nude man in a bin) rely on the assistance of the working class (personified here by a roadsweeper and also caretaker of aforementioned bin) to get them out of messes of their own making (being stuck naked in this same bin)? This play has that for you. Fancy some Brechtian working class singalongs with comedy horns and innuendo? Job done. Do you desire Beckettian dialogues on the nature of existence? Yup, got that too. Dissection of religion’s intrinsic value and man’s relationship with the deity itself in reference to our own nothingness? Job’s a good’un. Copious nob gags and funny carrot-based prop moments? Consider it done. Find people being hit over the head repeatedly with bin lids absolutely hilarious? This play has you covered.

I don’t think it’s necessary to understand every moment of the play, and to be honest it goes at such a lick that it would be almost impossible to do so without studying it heavily first. But it’s not really important. Fo is throwaway, he’s anarchic, he revels in breaking fourth walls and sending up authority. He doesn’t so much care about making coherent and empathetic narratives as giving you a laugh and a social message. It’s fun, its clever and it’s filled with invention and absurdity. Is this production well-made with love and energy? Yes, clearly – the actors are having a wonderful time up there onstage and their enthusiasm is infectious. Am I glad it was only an hour long? Yes indeed.

This production was made by Theatre of Heaven & Hell, so let’s deal with their “heavenly” points first. Their Programme Notes state the company “began in a living room in Southend-on-Sea”, and the production honours this humble origin with a charming and roughshod design. Newspapers and other street detritus litter the floor with such prolific abandon that it doesn’t so much feel like a normal city street at night but the morning after a newspaper-based apocalypse. The rest of the set is simple and does the job. The acting is enthusiastic with special mention going to Darren Ruston as the Naked Man in the bin, as he completely stole the show and chewed the scenery, sometimes literally. He had a slightly unfair advantage over his cast-mates as his role was a country mile better than the others, to the extent that when he wasn’t visible onstage the action noticeably dipped in interest, but considering he was static (in a bin) and often only a talking head (in a bin), he worked moments of utter stage magic.

Nicholas Bright and Jake Francis do well as the Roadsweeper and Man in Evening Dress respectively, and their grasp of Commedia acting style is clearly apparent and deserving of praise. Bright leads the piece as an ingénue of sorts, or an idiot savant, and somehow that comes across as the clown-like love-child of Goofy and Rodney Trotter, but it’s endearing and those type of parts are always very hard to pitch right, so Bright deserves much praise for aiming his little roadsweeper dunce with such innocence and sparkle that I only wanted to kill him a little bit. Elena Clements plays Woman with a vice-like command of punchlines and timing, and Brian Eastty multi-roles as a philosophical lascivious roadsweeper and a nosy patrolman. The cast are good on the whole, their energy is always at the apex of what is needed for the piece, and they clearly relished playing archetypes of sex workers, and policemen and ambassadors – this is not Pinter, or Shakespeare, or Chekhov – there are no three-dimensional characters here, and you can see the cast are loving living life large.

Now to deal with the “hellish” elements, as unfortunately this production could do with some honing.  The set-pieces and clowning elements were a little off in their timing and are in need of some more practice. There were multiple line fluffs which would be fixed by the actors taking a breath and some time during the performance to just “sit” in their roles and get comfortable. Only Ruston allowed the scenes to truly breathe, and it is something the rest of the cast could benefit from.

Second, the actors were all over-dressed in terms of their heat management. Many of the actors were sweating so much that it became a distraction for me, as I couldn’t get past how uncomfortable they looked. Turn the lights down, and turn the air conditioning up higher. Let them lose the hats and gloves. Make them comfortable, and they’ll be more at ease onstage. And if you’re going to have a naked man run across the stage at the end, then, let him be actually naked. Don’t fudge it with white loincloths. If he doesn’t want to, or if you don’t want to, then cut it. It’s one of those things you either do properly or don’t do at all, and to have it as the last image of the play meant that the whole production ended on a whimper as opposed to the explosion that presumably was intended.

One Was Nude and One Wore Tails is a quintessential London Fringe story. It’s a forgotten gem brought back to life, with a talented and energised cast that produce some moments of utter brilliance, but is let down slightly by a lack of precision in rehearsal in terms of movement direction. With some time and work – it could be divine.

One Was Nude and One Wore Tails is at the Hen and Chickens until 18th March.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉