Reviews Published 11 April 2017

Review: The Hearing Trumpet at Theatre Delicatessen, Peckham

Until April 29th, 2017

A muddled adaptation of Leonora’s surrealist novel in Peckham’s new theatre space.

Alice Saville
'The Hearing Trumpet' at Theatre Delicatessen, Peckham

‘The Hearing Trumpet’ at Theatre Delicatessen, Peckham

For someone who’s so completely tolerant of whimsy in daily life (my mantelpiece is littered with Victorian postcards and Sylvanian families, any cake I make is drenched in glitter) I’m weirdly intolerant of whimsy in my theatre. Accordingly, I spent large portions of Dirty Market’s production of The Hearing Trumpet caught between fascination and almost physical discomfort.

It’s based on Leonora Carrington’s surrealist novel, which is full of unexpected transformations, repurposed Latin American mythology and complex philosophical ideas about the female divine – leavened with a kind of unflappable narrative voice that cuts through the weirdness with endlessly quotable wit. It’s the kind of book that gets under your skin – that you want to share.

Dirty Market are a collective of artists that share it using a ramshackle combination of performance, physical theatre, video projection, and song. It’s staged immersively in the atmospheric Old Library, in an inventive approach that makes ingenious use of twigs (they become the body of an elderly woman), the less successful use of grotesque, inexpressive papier mache masks (they abandon using them early on, balancing them on their heads instead), and densely painted costumes cobbled together with safety pins.

Carrington had one, powerful authorial voice to keep her bizarre mix of themes in check, skipping wittily from institutional cruelty, ageing, salacious nuns, ancient magic and all-powerful bees. Dirty Market’s cacophony of styles and approaches struggles to tie this unholy blend together.

The odd brilliant line from Carrington’s text shines through – like the narrators’ conviction that you should only trust people under seven, over seventy, or cats – but her more challenging ideas don’t. The use of three different semi-immersive locations recreates some of the picaresque journey at the novel’s heart – its elderly protagonist Marion’s forcible removal from home, to a surreal religious institution, to blessed escape – but the design’s effects feel naively effortful, rather than transformative. There are some strong performances – notably from Benedict Hopper as a sadistic nurse, overseeing a horde of unruly old folks. But there are also some truly weak ones – the play’s stuffed with redundant caricatures from members of a bloated cast.

On the way home, I did a bit of self-analysis to work out quite why I felt so frustrated with a fundamentally well-meaning, ambitious but flawed piece like The Hearing Trumpet. (Leonora Carrington would have approved, given her work’s constant engagement with the subconscious). And I realised that what bothered me about it was that it used easy devices – like handing out blankets and biscuits and playing games which harked back to childhood in a charming old building – to speed the audience on its way to a memorable communal experience, without taking the same care to create a clear narrative the audience could truly follow, or to make this fantastical narrative feel relevant to the present day. [This childlike sense of “we’re all playing together” also makes critiquing the actual performance incredibly difficult – it feels somewhere between stupid and mean-spirited to mentally put your hand up and admit that the action was so muddled that it was well nigh impossible to follow.]

But what amplified my sense of frustration is this play’s setting, and the resonance it has for me as a South Londoner. Theatre Delicatessen have taken over Peckham’s Old Library as their newest London space. And the symbolism of using an abandoned library feels potent. When a new theatre opens north of the river, it gets celebrity sponsors, public investment, properly funded community engagement programmes and high production values. However important pop-up theatre spaces like Theatre Deli are, something in me wants that kind of sustained investment for South London, too.

Despite its inclusive veneer, The Hearing Trumpet is a piece that’s likely to fox even theatre devotees. At a time where gentrification is erecting tall fences between newly-arrived hipsters and long-term residents, Peckham badly needs to come together. Theatre can provide that – but it means telling stories that everyone can share in.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

Review: The Hearing Trumpet at Theatre Delicatessen, Peckham Show Info


Directed by Georgina Sowerby, Jon Lee

Cast includes Mayuko Kawai, Celia Mitchell, Rebecca Thorn, Francesca Dale, Benedict Hopper, Harry Haynes, Lizzie Clarke, Shana De Cassignac, Anne-Gaelle Thiriot

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