The absurd and often hilarious What’s He Building In There? from STaG productions opens with a sawdust-spattered man lovingly caressing a chair, and only gets weirder after that. There are six characters in the show: The Carpenter; The Wife; The Friend; The Friend’s Wife; The Manager... and of course The Chair. An introverted loner has found true love with a plain wooden chair he has crafted and is desperately trying to hide this extra-marital affair from his wife and friends.
Despite the obvious concern about forming attachments to inanimate objects, the play’s real horror is that the seemingly normal characters are arguably more unhinged than the chair-loving Carpenter. In a nightmarish dystopian world not far removed from our own, all importance is placed on status and material acquisition. There are strong 1984 overtones, as people spy on each other whilst aspiring to remain invisible. As The Friend’s Wife (played with Stepford Wife polish by Hannah Merriman) points out: ‘People are beginning to notice.. It isn’t good to be noticed.’
Although this may not sound like a recipe for humour the laughs were thick and fast, particularly in reaction to the slapstick hilarity of The Friend and The Manager, two characters with incredibly grotesque physicalities. During a perfectly pitched scene in which The Friend is trying to seduce The Wife, Jock Maitland performs what can only be described as a striptease, armed with a slithery tongue that would make Hannibal Lecter wince. When he hears The Carpenter return, The Friend tries to escape only to become entangled with the furniture. He is finally caught in a compromising position hopelessly entwined with The Carpenter’s ‘only love’. The chair, that is.
The character of The Manager, played by Richard Cullen, made all my childhood fears of clowns resurface with his garishly painted face that was mobile as rubber and appearing about three times the normal width. His gestures, not to mention his eyebrows (that deserve a standing ovation of their own), were as rich and expressive as mime; there was definitely a hint of Marcel Marceau about his borderline terrifying smile.
Sam Gregson (The Carpenter) and Harriet Bolwell (The Wife) were more recognisably human and therefore sympathetic, struggling to survive and stay unnoticed in a bewildering world. Gregson somehow managed to make his furniture fetish more tender than disturbing, which was truly quite an achievement. Even The Chair got a well-deserved bow at the curtain call.