There is a character in Old Gristle who carries a bin bag and, within it, the liquefied remains of his dead dog. Like everyone else in the play, he seems to teeter on the edge of insanity. His movements are spasmodic and eerily disjointed. Occasionally he sticks a finger in the bag and licks it.
At its most interesting, Old Gristle seems to function as a kind of microcosm, a distorted allegory for rural English credulity and convention.
This is the kind of milieu Old Gristle thrusts us into. It’s defined more by atmosphere than plot: the atmosphere of corruption, illness and unclean things. People speak of “the gas rising” as if it were a mounting epidemic or a plague, signalling imminent death. Putrefaction is in the air; the cast wear ragged clothing smeared with crud. A tarpaulin taped to the floor warns of pollution to come.
It’s an ambitious production supported by some strong acting. Georgie Jones gives a particularly good performance as the psychotic Petunia, tongue-testing the air, producing squeals of pleasure. Augusta (Hannah Maxwell) and Berty (Michael Pickering) are effective too, although the latter delivers one of the worst lines in the play: his dog tastes “bad...like dog tears and loyalty”.
At its most interesting, Old Gristle seems to function as a kind of microcosm, a distorted allegory for rural English credulity and convention. In this regard it bears comparison to Hot Fuzz, whose easy-going humour is an interesting foil to Old Gristle’s macabre absurdities. These seem to polarize the audience: some are left cold, others audibly delighted. Whatever your preferences, though, the climactic scene of the ‘village fête’, a travesty of Communion which parodies civic and religious ritual, is brilliantly done. Also commendable is a furiously-delivered, wholly unexpected distinction between marmalade from jam.
Still, Old Gristle isn’t quite coherent. Why does Bridget confess to Mortimer the crime he himself was involved in? Dark hints about what’s buried under the rose bushes, apparently unrelated to the play’s signal sin, add to the confusion. Together they make the play somewhat inchoate and very difficult to parse: I saw it twice before I felt I could fairly write this review. Still, Old Gristle is a lot of fun, as well as a wholly unconventional work of theatre.