Annie Siddons’ poetry is a poetry of the people, and their pain. It is a grown up Revolting Rhymes with not just fairy dust, but also sawdust and some other dodgy magic powder that probably causes hallucinations. It crystallises the everyday experiences of the forgotten and turns it into a jewelled badge of honour. It is also slightly weird.
There’s Wendi (Siddons), pretty much a normal human being, resident of SE20 and lover of fried chicken. Then there’s the eponymous Dennis (Jorell Coiffic-Kamall), who is Wendi’s childhood love and Penge’s Next Top Greek God, i.e. Dionysus in human form. He is a chicken shop boss and the leader of an impending revolution.
The show is part gig theatre, part spoken word recital, part theatre performance, part drum circle, part human, part mammalian. There are also dinosaurs, biblical references and vuvuzelas.
The Greek bit is the influence of Euripides’ The Bacchae, which the play is loosely based on. The Bacchae pits Dionysus against King Pentheus. In Dennis of Penge, it is Dennis versus Neil Pratt, soulless drone at Pentheus Care Consortium, who seems to delight at screwing Wendi and her mates at Alcoholics Anonymous out of their benefits and financial aid. The play is a commentary on the difficult recovery journey of addicts, and what happens when they chafe against The System that seems designed to keep them down.
Siddon’s tapestry of words builds the world of the play beautifully, and in the care of director Laura Keefe, this world is simultaneously large and small, real and otherworldly. With a play this epic in ambition but without the flashy costumes or big sets, Dennis of Penge takes a little while to find its groove, but when it gets there, it is magical.
Between them, Siddons and Coiffic-Kamall play multiple roles – Wendi and Dennis, respectively, as well as various smaller characters. They narrate, sing, dance and play music. It is almost like they are multi-limbed, superhumans themselves.
A reticent Asaf Zohar supports the duo as wet blanket Neil, but it is his role as the show’s composer in which he shines most. His eclectic score has shades of gospel, rock, drum and bass and electronica, amongst others, that act as crucial connective tissue to the narrative.
Dennis of Penge revels in the humanness of humanity. It is a tale of empowerment and redemption. It celebrates the broken and shows them that they are worthy of not just celebration, but of being venerated. It is a paean to SE20 and the neighbourhoods just like it, and a recognition that these homes can be a certain kind of heaven too, and its residents, gods.
This is The Bacchae remade – in gold, sinew and yes, chicken fat.
Dennis of Penge is on at Ovalhouse until 6th October, then the Albany 9th-13th October. More info here.