The Royal Court is not known for its festive offerings but this year it seems to have got into the spirit of things with Julia Jarcho’s Grimly Handsome at The Site. Well, sort of. This is about as far from A Christmas Carol as you can it. No amount of tinsel and Christmas trees will make this bizarre, challenging and strangely compelling three-part adventure through fragmented spaces and identities on a city’s peripheries fill you with festive cheer.
The Site is accessed via a grubby and dishevelled alley beyond stage door that you’d barely imagine was allowed to exist in such close proximity to Sloane Square. It’s a secret underbelly of the city that proves apposite. Inside, the audience is urged to wander through several seemingly unrelated spaces. Variously odd, funny and creepy, they are destined to flow through the following story in the main performance space, which itself is grimly redolent of a Victorian schoolroom. Here, the bizarreness continues: women’s winter accessories hang from the walls; the in-sight SM wears a racoon outfit.
Two street vendors selling Christmas trees begin a disjointed conversation that, despite being largely nonsensical, has compelling energy. As we move the through the play’s parts, we piece the scenario together through recurring images and impulses: a festive serial killer is on the loose. But, experimenting with form, Jarcho largely does away with plot, instead building theme and feeling as she mutates her trio through different characters: street vendors and their victim, policemen investigating the crime and even scavenger animals. As they change, they circle around this single act of violence to explore threads of meaning and relationships. Think Cloud Atlas or David Lynch.
Chloe Lamford and Sam Pritchard embrace the play’s structural inventiveness with an intelligent, oddly relaxed and humane production. Design becomes integral, yet never overwhelms character or action, and brilliantly keeps the audience interested and engaged where meaning can only be fleetingly grasped. As the performers move through the space, we watch at one remove. The street vendors can be seen through the windows, while other scenes are beamed in via videolink. It’s a two-fold success, enhancing the feeling of desolation and dislocation but with any potential disengagement cleverly offset by our first-hand experience of these spaces, which include a shrine to 80s muscle men pop culture, our heroine’s sad bedroom, and a disturbingly morbid seasonal tableaux.
Even when things occasionally become ramblingly incomprehensible, the seamlessness of the production and the quality of the cast keeps the audience invested. The show’s many technical hurdles are smoothly surmounted as witty and engaging performances by Alex Austin, Alex Beckett, Amaka Okafor are able to fill – or create – the emotional spaces in the play. The trio’s character work is deft as they switch between Polish migrants workers and victims, hardboiled NY cops and their lovers and, finally, racoons. Yet throughout they manage to draw some sameness of tone or energy or feeling to keep the play unified and compelling.
Festive cheer remains in short supply but, if you find the phony sparkles and forced cheer of the season more disorientating than delightful, Grimly Handsome is the Christmas story for you.
Grimly Handsome is on until 23 December 2017 at the Royal Court. Click here for more details.