Pros: Clever narrative and a great cast in a very funny yet thoughtful piece of work.
Cons: The machine is slightly overused, and the noise can be overwhelming and drown out dialogue.
Monkhead Theatre have absolutely come out swinging with their first production, the wonderfully funny Dead Souls at the Theatre N16 – which is located not in N16, but in Balham. The performance is in The Bedford, on the third floor of this sprawling behemoth of a pub theatre. The room is dark and sparse. A makeshift movie screen of overlying pieces of white paper hangs from the screen with occasional projections, and three incredibly talented actors bring a very amusing tale of greed and corruption to life.
In Dead Souls, a young, poor man called Chichikov is determined to change his fate in life and become a landowner. An opportunity presents itself, but in order to make the most of it, he must travel from town to town and purchase the deeds of dead serfs from landowners in a somewhat timeless Russia – his clothes are those of an 18th century peasant, but the technology and digital echoes of the piece are far more modern, creating a strangely successful clash of worlds. Along the way, Chichikov navigates difficult characters and conversations whilst avoiding a prosecutor who is determined to stamp out corruption at every turn.
This production adapts the style and tone of a tragic Russian novel perfectly, and embraces said style and tone in a way that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Although there are only three actors and, in traditional Russian style, numerous characters with complicated names, a helpful guide to each character pops up on the aforementioned screen to tell us who has appeared, and whether or not we can expect this character to make a further appearance.
The characters themselves are wonderful, and the three men playing them are faultless in their performances. Toby Osmond as Nozdryow is hysterically funny. His foolish landowner depiction is reminiscent of a posh, obsessive Russell Brand, and his comedic delivery is outstanding. Joshua Jacob is full of energy and emotion as Chichikov, and Jules Armana manages to turn the initially stoic prosecutor into quite a sympathetic character.
The clever use of technology is equally good. Without giving too much away, there’s a very creative way to bring the outside world into the theatre and keep the audience gripped by the narrative with no actors in the room. However, some of the technology does let the show down a bit. A cymbal and microphone sit in the middle of the room and add a fairly haunting noise to tense scenes – but the noise can be too overpowering for the small room, and it drowns out a lot of dialogue. There’s a chance that this is deliberate, but it doesn’t add value to the production.
The narrative is strong, the play is fast-moving, and by the conclusion, each character has evolved – and, deliciously, none for the better. This is a marvellous production on corruption throughout all levels of society, and the circular nature of corruption is handled very well.
It is astounding that this is the first offering from Monkhead Theatre – it’s professionally done, well-rounded, smart, and so very funny – and absolutely needs a further run with immediate effect.