Grimly Handsome

At times I question The Royal Court for programming plays aimed solely are the pretentious and the seasoned theatre critic. There are times it almost seems not to care about any other audience "not smart enough" to get how clever it is, and there is a sense of it behaving like an exclusive club which holds the key to understanding complex wordplay and bizarre visual metaphor that are becoming so common to its output as to veer towards self-parody. On paper - aside from the fact that the language is one we can actually understand throughout - American playwright Julia Jarcho's 2013 award-winning Grimly Handsome (it seems much more 2017 than it is) is more bewildering than anything youve ever seen at The Court, and yet it is without pretension, includes each of us in its madness and is a wonderfully unique and deeply satisfying serving of a 'theatre experience'.

It's probably the most unique Christmas show you could see this year.

If this was playing on one of the main stages inside, then it may make one want to prod and poke under the covers to first find its deeper meaning and then find it lacking. Maybe the rough and readiness of the space it's in means there's less sense of any allusion or metaphor at play - unless of course I am now embarrassing myself by missing the point - other than perhaps mocking both itself and us for constantly looking for one. And if you keep that in mind, you can just enjoy an acutely acted, intricately directed (though tellingly, no Director is credited - this has been 'created' by Chloe Lamford and Sam Pritchard), designed with sumptuous simplicity, dollop of bizarre surreality that is great great fun to be a part of.

And you really do feel a part of the bizarre and macabre buffoonery that is being performed in, around, outside and via film at the venue. The Site is a rehearsal space at the back of the theatre proper that Associate Designer Lamford quietly opened to the public this year as an experiment to invite audiences and artists to come to and rethink how plays are both created and consumed. I say consumed rather than watched as it does feel like we have stumbled into this other world, and can be as involved as we want, like providing a window to the voyeur and leaving us to decide how much we want to stare. It's subtly immersive with no explicit attempts to involve us or break down a 'fourth wall', instead taking us as just a part of the furniture they work around.

From (before) the start, this sense of nonchalence in its inclusiveness is clearly set. We are invited to spend our time pre-show exploring the rest of the outhouse building, and see - with no context - a driveway lined with bagged up Christmas trees ready for sale, a small room over filled with slightly macabre Christmas tatt, a gallery of oddities like a stuffed rat on a dais and a framed photograph of someone called The Christmas Ripper, a murder scene being excavated at the back of the building. Some... all... none are referenced at later points. And, at the performance I saw, there was no guided tour around these areas to point out things of importance, better reflecting the piece itself. It just is. There. Take a look. Don't. It's up to you. This may seem like arrogance at worst or nonchalence at best, but the effect is disarmingly engaging.

As such it seems wrong to try and explain the plot at hand. Not only to avoid giving away any twists and turns that make the bewilderment so delightful, but also because it's bloody difficult to try and make sense of it without it sounding rather flat. But a brief attempt nonetheless. The first Part (of three) seems straightforward at first: American woman, dissatisfied with her life, comes across two possibly Eastern European men, selling the trees. She seems drawn to them - could they somehow fill the gap in her life? The men talk with a secret shared subtext when alone and speaking in their native language (it's English), which seems to drive their actions when speaking to the woman (still in English, but now with a cod accent). Could this subtext be anything to do with that Christmas Ripper? The best advice I can give you is not to spend time waiting for the answers - or even to raise the right questions - as that road will take you nowhere but madness. And the madness on display here is enough and not to be missed.

The second and third Parts seem to overlap, reverse and reinvestigate the same questions and could confuse as the three actors cross cast, multi cast and get cast as animals (pandas now you ask, but the red sort, not the ones you first think, as though your first thought would have made more sense). But it will only confuse as it jars with our need for sense. Just let yourself go with it and leave your natural sense of things outside at the mulled wine stall.

Heed these words of advice and go in with your eyes open. Full credit to the cast - Amaka Okafor as the American woman (and policeman and suspect and wife and panda-thing), and Alex Austin and Alex Beckett (don't expect me to continue with that character listing!) for maintaining a complete air of normality to all their roles and situations, so making the surreality all the more entertaining. It struck me that if Noel Fielding were to write a Christmas themed play, the result would sit comfortably next to Grimly Handsome. It's probably the most unique Christmas show you can see this year. It's definitely the most entertaining way to spend 90 minutes in Chelsea in the run up to Christmas. 

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

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The Blurb

“Last night I woke up and found that I was not at home. And I was not wearing my own clothes. And then I wasn’t sure. Maybe they were my clothes, and I was someone else.”

In an unnamed American city, two strangers sell Christmas trees on the sidewalk; two cops work to solve a killing spree; and a young woman finds herself transforming in ways she could never have imagined.

A darkly comic thriller exploring the margins of a city and the violent fantasies they inspire.

In this new production of Jarcho’s Obie Award-winning play, Sam Pritchard and Chloe Lamford collaborate to reimagine the play as a series of installations inside The Site, a new space at the Royal Court.

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