Reviews Brighton Published 14 May 2013

The Bear

Brighton Dome ⋄ 13th - 14th May 2013

A neo-noir fairy tale.

Tom Wicker

The film noir-ish publicity for this company-devised co-production between theatre group Improbable and performer Angela Clerkin – also on writing duties here, adapting her own short story – is a little misleading. While the show is embellished with some suitably smoky bits of voiceover and neat visual take-offs, at times these elements feel superfluous. The Bear is altogether funnier, odder and baggier than a simple pastiche of gumshoe cinema.

Breaking the fourth wall, Clerkin as ‘herself’ recount to us the strange final case she worked on as a solicitor’s clerk ten years ago while living in North London – an ex-serviceman, James Atwood, accused of murdering the man who had been sleeping with his wife. But when Clerkin interviews Atwood, he insists he wasn’t the culprit in this seeming crime of passion. He swears he saw a bear leaving the scene.

What follows is Clerkin’s own investigation into this bizarre claim, prompted by her discovery of a witness statement cut from Atwood’s barristers’ neat version of events also testifying to the presence of a bear. With the aid of fellow performer Guy Dartnell, a few props, a succession of fur coats, a smattering of songs and some snippets of cultural anthropology, Clerkin takes us bear-baiting.

In keeping with previous Improbable productions, a poor theatre-style rummage through the dressing-up box brings a welcome playfulness to a show that is ultimately about the bear inside us all. Outsized animal heads and an amusing re-enactment of how to survive a grizzly attack feed into a story of traumatised soldiers and grotty pubs in which the addicted, dispossessed and abandoned drink their lives away in the shadow of violence.

Clerkin is a calm and measured narrator, her careful articulation of her younger self’s destructive attraction to danger lending contrasting weight to the car-crash of her/character’s personal life. Closed-off and pent-up, her tone is often unsettlingly clinical – a woman observing herself from a distance as if she were a cultural artefact.

This works best when she’s talking directly to us. The stagey faux-spontaneity of her conversations with Dartnell is a self-conscious simulacrum of reality that distracts from, rather than enhances, the show’s variety show-style surrealism and matter-of-fact, funny approach to what could otherwise be trite parable-telling about an in-denial society that has lost touch with every communal feeling but anger.

Dartnell contributes an enthusiastic, knockabout quality to the show. As Clerkin’s indefatigable Northern Irish aunt Gloria, his accent frequently slips right off the stage. But this fits nicely into director Lee Simpson’s production, which seeks out the rough over the suspiciously smooth and polished. And Dartnell manages to be both a hoot and genuinely sinister as he jerks and growls his way through a Bluesy number about bear attacks.

From the lighting to the sound and set design, a little goes a long way here. Ominous chords and a turn-able, semi-translucent box centre-stage – behind which Dartnell occasionally moves, his outline distorted – gesture at things lurking, waiting for Clerkin as she pushes on with her investigation. The open-ended box, which doubles as an Old Bailey prison cell and her front room, is a confrontational space.

In the end, The Bear offers up but pleasingly resists overly neat literal or psychological explanations of its themes, going instead for the tone of a modern fairytale in the style of Grimm brothers. Not every aspect works and it takes a little while for the show to find its tempo. Nonetheless, surreal but never flimsily whimsical, it has a surprisingly sharp bite at times.

The Bear will be at Ovalhouse, London, from 21st – 31st May.


Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

The Bear Show Info

Produced by Angela Clerkin in co-production with Improbable In association with Ovalhouse

Directed by Lee Simpson




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