first night

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Joe Burke experiences the wackiness of Ooook!'s latest production.

Since this played relied so heavily on themes of madness and illogicality, I’m well-placed to open this review with a wholeheartedly ridiculous embellishment: the pun I have written at the bottom of this passage is so outrageously bad that I feel the need to apologise as far in advance as I possibly can. Please consider this to be that apology.

Anyway, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I entered the assembly rooms for Ooook!’s Napoleon of Notting Hill. All I knew was that it was written by G. K. Chesterton and that the poster art was really good, so I suppose my expectations were relatively high, but I was also worried that it might be an extremely deep political commentary about despotism and the value of democracy, which filled me with a sense of foreboding.

Fundamentally, though, the play is quite simple: in the future, the king of England is this crazy guy, whose subordinates order a bypass to be built through Notting Hill, but the guy in charge of Notting Hill decides he doesn’t want the bypass built, so he fights the king’s armies, wins, and then becomes the king himself. Then later he gets killed. And the king also gets killed, along with everyone else. But then the guy from Notting Hill and the King get up (after having been stabbed in the chest and hit with an axe, respectively) and have a conversation, reflecting on what just happened.

In retrospect, it’s not that simple, but it’s an adventure story, and it’s utterly, utterly mad. However, while I’m not at all adverse to a dose of madness, this particular brand required a level of energy and involvement which the play, unfortunately, never quite managed to deliver.

It would not be at all fair to say that the cast were weak, but it felt as though there was a sense of under-confidence across the board. Although this could be attributable to first night nerves, there’s no doubt the play would benefit from a little extra energy which they’re more than capable of providing. A notable exception to this need for pace is the eponymous Napoleon, played by Frederico Mollet, whose extremely underplayed character had an odd sense of sobriety and piousness, which provided a nice counterpoint to the wackiness of the play in general, and Kirsten Lees’ Auberon more specifically.

Although Kirsten’s portrayal of Auberon as intensely whimsical and happy-go-lucky was, for the most part, effective, there were moments when the play could have benefited from a more passionate and driven leader to direct the action forwards. To a certain extent this was provided by the colourful suite of chorus roles, who were generally very good, but all the actors could still do a lot to up the energy and provide this much-needed drive, the lack of which made the play (with such an absurd plot) a little hard to follow.

As a cheeky aside, Ooook!’s murals have been putting other DST companies to shame for years now, and the backdrop of this play was no exception. I have no idea whether the artist intended it to mirror Van Gogh’s Starry Night, but I’m going to assume that this was a deliberate attempt to invoke themes of madness which were generally present throughout the play. If so, this was a work of raw genius and if not, it was still a stunning backdrop and provided a vibrant splash of colour to the production.

Vibrant colour was also very much the order of the day where costume was concerned, and the crazy uniforms Auberon enforced in the first act were well received by the audience if not the characters. This contrasted well with the toned-down steel greys of Act 2, when the city took up arms and the play took on a more sombre tone.

Unfortunately, however, there were two crucial areas which this flamboyance didn’t seem to reach, which were the set and the lighting. The lighting felt a little too stark and the stage a little too empty, which made the crazier elements of the play seem unconvincing instead of entertaining; the king’s ludicrous attire and senseless orders looking out-of-place on an otherwise rather bare stage.

There were two notable times when this emptiness worked (the opening storyteller scene and the closing battle scene) and, for me, these highlight the most important weakness of the play, which was its lack of energy. In both of these scenes, the only things on stage were the actors, but because each cast member really threw themselves into the activity, both scenes felt lively and involving, and were very effective.

Ultimately, it was this overall lack of energy which was the play’s biggest downfall. This is a fun, wacky adventure story and a lot of the elements are in place to make it just that. All it needs to drive it up a notch is a little extra Oooomph!

 

Joe Burke

 

13 December 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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