‘Britain’s one-man literary avant garde of the 1960s’ according to biographer Jonathan Coe, B.S. Johnson is regarded by a small but loyal cult following as one of the best 20th century British authors. Johnson is best known for his more outlandish and novel gestures: he cut holes in the pages of his book Albert Angelo to reveal to readers a plot spoiler, and his The Unfortunates was divided into 25 unbounded sections that could be read in any order between the introduction and conclusion. Johnson’s works have an absurdity to them, but it’s one that is rooted in real life. The challenge then becomes fixing a real world, which can then be distorted with deviance and irreverence, onto them.
You’re Human Like the Rest of Them takes three of Johnson’s short plays to show the diversity and depth of Johnson’s writing, but does so with varying degrees of success. Not Counting the Savages, originally a teleplay about family dysfunction, is slow moving and alienating. Director Carla Kingham has the actors sit separately, either staring out to the audience or pacing about Rūta Irbīte’s set, a more or less empty room with scattered Kandinsky-like shapes in grayscale (it’s a commendable attempt at filling the space given that the show is played out on the set of Finborough’s main show, I’m Going to Pray for You So Hard). Sarah Berger as the Wife shines, but without a fully developed sense of the relationships between the characters, the drama forfeits its edge. And the humour in the scene, the thing that really drives home the absurdity of family life, is overlooked in the slightly stylised setting.
Down Red Lane, however, loses little of its wit, and is the best play of the night. Reginald Edwards transforms his body to be a morbidly gargantuan, gluttonous diner whose stomach (Alex Griffin-Griffiths) can do nothing but protest the sheer mass of grub pushed onto his plate. Reminiscent of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, it’s a deeply funny scene that also pokes at the mind/body dichotomy. It’s also quite sad – here is a man who has no one else to talk to but his stomach. Griffin-Griffiths and Edwards have good chemistry but the scene is not paced properly and doesn’t have the slow build it should. It is still funny, but the actors resort to being too shouty in order to drive the scene.
Rounding the trilogy off is the title piece, You’re Human Like the Rest of Them, also a short film originally directed by Johnson. It depicts the inevitable discovery of human fragility, as Haakon (Bertie Taylor-Smith) first hears a lecture from a physiotherapist (Berger). Without a fully realised world, this final play doesn’t feel like it gets a chance to breathe. The lecture scenes evoke boredom and lethargy, as if the students have been stuck there forever, but that simply isn’t reflected in the space.
Although too gimmicky for some, Johnson’s famous innovations are real experimentations of form. But further twisting of theatrical forms and highlighting of wit is perhaps what is needed from this production. By relying almost too heavily on the text itself, and not exploring the numerous ways in which the text can bend or give way to visual language, You’re Human Like the Rest of Them fails to fully transport us to a Johnson world.
You’re Human Like the Rest of Them is on at the Finborough Theatre until 21st March 2017. Click here for more details.