Review: The Bald Prima Donna

Slip of the Lip Theatre, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Saturday 25th July (matinee)

In Paris’s 5th arrondissement, there’s a little theatre where you can catch Eugène Ionesco’s “Anti-Play”, The Bald Prima Donna, in permanent repetition as part of a repertoire of just three works. In London, you’ll have to work a lot harder to see anything by the great Romanian absurdist, so it’s a true and immediate joy to see this British adaptation, from Slip of the Lip Theatre, making its way around the London fringe.

The Bald Prima Donna is an absolutely winning choice of play – if you haven’t read it already, I suggest you get to the task immediately – and this production, while limited in its attempts to bring new life or interest to the text, offers a loyal and humorous take of a classic that has been so terribly neglected on English soil. There’s a joyful performance from Griselda Williams as Mrs. Smith, the textbook British woman, as she chortles her way through elaborately banal recollections of what the family had for dinner. The play is riddled with artfully clunky descriptions right from Mrs Smith’s very first utterance where, with all the references to English food and English water and English habits within London’s suburbs, Ionesco commentary on the absurdity of entering a new culture through a new language becomes apparent. Beckett fans might observe a particular familiarity in Brian Merry’s grunted responses to his onstage wife’s upbeat narratives of routine. Written in 1950, it’s easy to interpret this work as the start of a conversation with Happy Days, which premiered just a decade later.

Peter Easterbrook and Alice Devine are brilliantly spirited and delightfully matched as Mr. and Mrs. Martin, the pair that arrives as a couple but apparently has no recollection of ever meeting before. Devine is a joy to watch as she mirrors Easterbrook’s body language, learning towards him, encouraging and engaged, with her lips curled in a mischievously secretive smile. While the Ikea “Lack” table is frightfully not in keeping with Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s decidedly English decor, the company has done well to bring the sense of a middle class lounge into a room above a Wetherspoons, and the cast all make admirable attempts at the absurdist twists and complex chains of reason and narrative within this play, which occasionally race into cycles of mesmerising intensity.

The Bald Prima Donna will show at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until the 1st August, and The Cockpit from 26th-30th August.
More information can be found at slipofthelip.co.uk.

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