The connection between Freudian theory, dream and children’s drama is one well worn. This is, after all, the tradition that brought us Captain Hook doubling as Mr Darling – the father figure being one to be feared and escaped from as much as he is to be protected by and returned to. It’s a twin stereotype we all know whether we realise it or not, or so say the Freudians. Still, though the parent-child dynamic is nothing new, rarely has it been employed to such a twisted and imaginative extent as in Mister Holgado, Christopher William Hill’s incomparably odd and – devilishly entertaining – kids’ drama.
Mister Holgado is about a lonely boy called Conrad (Daniel Naddafy), who isn’t allowed to play outside with the other children and must instead stick to a rigorous regime of home schooling and self-betterment. Conrad’s life is dominated by his father (Sandy Grierson), a child-psychologist and amateur beetle-fancier, and his over anxious mother (Cath Whitefield), who seems to be constantly teetering on the edge of a full-blown nervous breakdown.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the strictures of his day to day life, Conrad has become an incredibly imaginative boy and, after being regaled by stories of boy-befriending tigers, he wakes up one morning convinced he has his own tiger that lives in his room and eats champagne truffles. His name? Ahem… Sigmund.
After trying to disprove the existence of the tiger, Conrad’s father attempts to outwit the boy and plays along, concocting an elaborate turn of events that explains how a nasty man had snuck into the apartment in the dead of night and released the animal.
Predictably, this only makes matters worse, as now Conrad becomes fixated on the nasty man, the eponymous Mr Holgado, a man-monster who lives in the wardrobe and who snacks upon cockroaches between feasting on children; a man with black eyes, a freaky top hat, razor-sharp teeth and a pervert’s moustache; a man who listens to creepy fairground music, hates anchovy and herring paste and can be identified by one tell-tale aural signifier – the sound of him sharpening his knife and fork, ready for his next child-sized dinner.
Conrad’s father, undeterred by the tiger debacle – and in a display of woefully inadequate parenting skills – again plays along with the fantasy, this time becoming Mr Holgado and attempting to be so horrible that Conrad will be forced to admit he made the whole thing up. Well, surreal calamity ensues.
Sandy Grierson is excellent in the dual role, oscillating brilliantly between a dour Scottish academic and a cockney Dickensian mega-villain. Cath Whitefield is similarly impressive as the neurotic mother, cartoonishly amplified, terrified of everything and perennially brow-beaten by her austere but overbearing husband.
Kai Fischer’s set is another strength. Divided into three areas the set encompasses a kitchen, Conrad’s bedroom, and Conrad’s father’s study, an unsettling room bedecked with towers of leather-bound books, tribal masks and glass-cased spiders. The three subsections are all twisted and stretched like a set by Caspar Neher. For example, the coving in the study that joins the ceiling to the wall is sloped and distended in such a way as to make it appear like you’re looking up at it, a trick of perspective to mimic the point-of-view of young Conrad, swallowed up by the cavernous height of his a-feared father’s imposing office.
Strengths indeed, but the true power of Mister Holgado is in its fiendishly weird script. The story roughly fits a recognisable pantomime format: that of a dream that becomes reality that becomes again a dream, only it’s a damned sight crazier, more grown up and more anarchic than any I’ve ever seen before. The result is a funny, freaky story; a witch’s brew of JM Barrie, Franz Kafka and Roald Dahl. And of the lattermost – its true parent, arguably – it shares that rare quality of being for children without being patronising or stooping to talk to them. It is intelligent, and it trusts its young audience to be intelligent too.
Like Dahl, there’s darkness here too, and with a few loud-bang shocks and startles dotted throughout the play, Mister Holgado isn’t for very young children. However, looking around the auditorium, it’s clear with kids of about 10 it went down a right treat. And there was more than enough for their parents to enjoy too, one memorable tangent I remember was when it became clear the father’s dressing up as Mr Holgado was having an unexpectedly beneficial effect on his marriage – Conrad’s mother started making an effort with her appearance while she waited for him to return from work in character, and he would bring her flowers. Delightfully odd.