In the wake of a failed relationship, a desolate Tim just wants to be left alone to sit around in his underwear and mope in his flat. Unfortunately for him – though fortunately for us – such solitude proves elusive as he is tortured by images from his past, his imagination and even from daytime TV.
Anthony Neilson’s Realism, first staged as part of the 2006 Edinburgh International Festival, is a surreal and hallucinatory tour de force. While Tim Treloar (the main male characters use the actors’ names) gives a sympathetic performance as the beleaguered protagonist, this is a production where the staging really elevates things. Tom Scutt’s beautifully realised set design transforms a rundown London flat into a series of traps and snares for the unwary; no domestic appliance is too humdrum to house a ghost. At any moment a face might appear in the bin or the washing machine, a troupe of figures from the fridge or, in one jump-out-of-your-seat moment, emerge like the ghost from Ring from the TV. Torrents of sand – and the occasional giant carrot – fall from the ceiling, so that the audience is kept as on edge as the protagonist, never sure what the day will bring next.
At a brisk 80 minutes, the production doesn’t pause, moving seamlessly from one set piece to the next, as childhood memories merge with masturbatory fantasies and reality blurs with what is seen on the TV. Standout moments include Tim finding himself in the midst of a TV panel show, his working-man rant dissolving into self-consciousness, his remorse-filled reaction to being rude to a telesales caller, and the hilariously un-PC musical number by a troupe of black and white minstrels (you won’t find Glee doing a cover version of “Fucking Cunts” any time soon), all interspersed with a deliciously deadpan wit. The often pitch-black script abounds with clever stylistic touches, highlighting then puncturing the absurdity, and is further complemented by the apt choice of music and Steve Marmion’s taut direction.
The performances are also universally strong. Treloar is very engaging as the demoralised protagonist, subtly altering his performance in response to each emotional trigger; the rest of the cast ably take on multiple roles. Rocky Marshall (also using his own name) has just the right amount of borderline bullying bonhomie as the best friend trying to rouse him from his stupor but with possibly sinister intent (and also steals the show as the hilariously sullen anthropomorphised cat), while Shane Zaza brings an infectious, Puckish verve as his Jimmy-Cricket-in-reverse bad angel, taunting him in to bad behaviour. As the shadows of his mother and father, Joanna Holden and Barry McCarthy give entertaining performances but are limited by their overly clichéd roles, though the play at least acknowledges these are clichés of Treloar’s own making, as ultimately unreal as the rest of his fantasies. Likewise, as first and latest loves Robyn Addison and Golda Rosheuvel have less to do, but bring depth and humanity to their roles – though it says something, perhaps, that while the two male leads use the actors’ names, none of the female characters do so.
Ultimately the play’s limitations are only that, in focusing so much in one person’s head, it’s a struggle to gain an emotional foothold; when you’re parachuted into the middle of someone else’s breakdown it’s hard to care how they got there, and the play never truly gives us enough to hold onto – not about Tim and who he really is, or his relationship and why it failed. Snippets of memory offer hints, but nothing more – and this leaves a hollowness at the story’s core that no amount of laughs and shocks can fill. Despite this, though, Realism is slick, funny and splendidly original and for this the whole production is to be applauded.