Review: Profound absurdity at the Bear Pit tells us much about life

Thomas Hodge, Emma Beasley, Barry Purcase-Rathbone, Tom Purchase-Rathbone and India Willes in The Bald Prima Donna
Thomas Hodge, Emma Beasley, Barry Purcase-Rathbone, Tom Purchase-Rathbone and India Willes in The Bald Prima Donna
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Nick Le Mesurier reviews The Bald Prima Donna at the Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford

Theatre of the Absurd is one of those Marmite forms: you either love it or hate it. Personally, I love it, and I’d urge anyone who is not familiar with this gloriously anarchic form of theatre to give it a try. With The Bald Headed Prima Donna by Eugene Ionesco, The Bear Pit do a fine job of bringing this too long out of fashion form to life. It’s a bold choice of play, and a risky one perhaps for a theatre company to take in these straitened times, but the Bear Pit has a penchant for anarchic comedy, and this is one of their finest.

The plot, if there is a plot, involves two couples: the Smiths (Emma Beasley and Thomas Hodge) and the Martins (India Willes and Barry Purchase-Rathbone). The Martins are visiting the Smiths…and that’s about as far as it goes. The dialogue, which seems sensible at first, becomes increasingly absurd as the play goes on, gradually wearing away at the façade of reality. There’s a Fire Chief (Barry Purchase-Rathbone) and a mad maid (Claire Bradwell) too, adding sometimes sense, sometimes senselessness to the mayhem

If the play sets out to do anything it is to undercut assumptions about the meaningfulness of English suburban life, though the national lampoon is handled lightly. It’s as if the characters are part of some crazy experiment, conducted by powers that are remote and unaccountable, in which they (we?) are held in a sort of cage that looks and feels familiar but has been somehow been infected with a virus that makes them (us?) do and say crazy things. But because everyone has become infected no-one notices. If you like a Monty Python-esque take on the world, you’ll love this.

When you come to think about it, anything and everything that happens is extraordinary because none of it need be so; it is all based on assumptions. So in this play, little bit by little bit the axis of everyday reality is nudged into, or out of, place, and we find we are not quite where we thought we were.

This sort of anarchy demands to be played with absolute seriousness and immaculate timing, and it is. The acting and direction are superb. It takes a lot of sense to be this silly, and when it works as well as this it is hilarious and disturbing, and uncannily true.

* The play runs until Saturday February 17. Call 01789 403416 to book.