We had been tipped off by some Good Samaritans beforehand that Jez Butterworth‘s play comes in at a staggering 3 hours 20 minutes with two intervals. Christ! We could have flown to the holy city in less time. To be honest the runes were not looking auspicious and the Whingers were on their knees praying to the God of theatre (why has he foresaken us?) to intervene with some technical problem which would necessitate the whole thing being called off and refunds given.
And do you know what? Never have 200 minutes flown by so fast, so enjoyably and accompanied by such gales of laughter.
Mark Rylance plays Johnny Byron – a hard-drinking part-Scheherazade, part-Pied Piper, part opinionated wastrel and part all-round scumbag who deals drugs to minors. But he does it all with limitless charm, a De Niro twinkle and a performance as hilarious as the one which won the Whingers’ hearts in Boeing Boeing.
He lives in a (too flash really) Airstream caravan in a wood (the set by Ultz features real trees – The Whingers do hope they were sustainable) near a small town in Wiltshire where – despite his status as a haven for the local teenagers and a lover of many of the local women – it appears that his time is running out. A petition against him has been signed by thousands and the local council has used its powers to call in the police to get him evicted. Significantly to Mr Butterworth’s slice of English life it’s St George’s Day and the day of the local annual fete which gets crapper every year.
Now interestingly enough Wiltshire is Phil’s county of birth and indeed he has his own tales to tell of each of the many places name-checked in the play although nobody listens.
But more importantly to the world of comedy Wiltshire is blessed with an accent which seems to be funny whatever you say in it (Sadly Phil lost his. Or sold it. Or something.).
It also features a discussion about the decline of BBC Points West (the local news programme Phil grew with), scenes of cocaine being cut with Trivial Pursuit cards (the game hadn’t even been invented in Phil’s youth) and tests Mark Rylance and cast against that old chestnut of never working with children or animals by including a goldfish, a urinating tortoise, some chickens and a small boy (we think we saw Lenny Harvey who looked about 6 but could possibly be 11 like his role share Lewis Coppen).
Real choc ices are consumed, Rylance dunks his head in a water trough and shakes his wet hair over those in the Row A and an axe is wielded menacingly close to these bloggers (was Butterworth tipped off that the Whingers would be seated in the front row?).
On the debit side it features morris dancing.
For two of the three acts the mode is almost all relentless comedy and director Professor Ian Rickson draws shining performances from the entire and not inconsiderable ensemble which notably includes The Office graduate Mackenzie Crook (in fact, wasn’t Gareth Keenan from Wiltshire too? Swindon?). We particularly enjoyed Tom Brooke who, we note, had the misfortune to be in The Boat That Rocked and so deserves to be singled out for praise: he was wonderful as the hapless would-be emigree Lee Piper. Alan David is priceless as the vague Professor.
When the comedy stops and the violence begins it’s a bit of a shock and we have to confess that we didn’t really know what it was all about. Butterworth’s teasing juxtaposition of the mystic and the mundane (Stonehenge and custard creams) is all very well but when we were just left with the mystic the Whingers were way out of their depth.
Butterworth is a pig farmer in Somerset apparently, which may be a clue; perhaps it’s even more state-of-the-nation than it claims. Phil headed straight home to phone NHS Direct and begged for Tamiflu. But really we have no idea what it was all about.
And we didn’t much care that we didn’t understand it. To be honest, we would probably go and sit through all three hours 20 minutes of it again.