Despite being one of Jack London’s more obscure works, his 1915 novel
If you’re after an intense psychological potboiler to play out right under your your nose, the ingredients are all there; it’s just the recipe that may need reexamining.
With their adaptation of the story, Shedload Theatre succeed admirably in bringing the brutality behind these dense themes to vivid life. As Standing, Joe Darbyshire is drowned, choked, beaten and brutalised to within an inch of his life and his mad-eyed bombastic ranting is both impactful and appropriate for a character deprived of sunlight and human company for months on end. The bare, industrial set and the multilayered, unsettling soundtrack add to this unhinged air to create a truly disquieting atmosphere.
So far, so effective, but the play soon runs into problems due to its uneasy balance of source material and adaptation. London’s original tale is written very much in the style of its time — one central narrator recounting the events almost verbatim. This works well enough in prose, offering an effective way to help us get under the skin of the protagonist, to suffer his agonies as our own; but, faithfully adapted to a five-hander play, it leaves four of the characters sadly lacking in depth, development and dialogue.
This is especially true of Alex Horrox-White's Doctor who spends his brief time on stage as a maniacal, cackling cardboard-cutout sadist whose sole motivation for cruelty seems to be to live up to the Bond-henchman stereotype that his black leather gloves promise. Likewise, Silvia Colucci’s ‘Girl’ offers a welcome change of tone when she is on stage but has little to do but glide gracefully around the space and then back off again.
As the protagonist, Standing is given plenty more time to flesh out his character but even here there is context missing. We understand vividly the tortures that Standing endures in the dungeons of Reading Gaol but at no point do we learn exactly how a once-professor like him actually ended up in such a place, nor where he gained the inner resources necessary to stomach such abuse, both subjects dealt with in the original story.
The Star Rover is a hard-to-watch play, at different times for different reasons. If you’re after an intense psychological potboiler to play out right under your your nose, the ingredients are all there; it’s just the recipe that may need reexamining.