Though the cast of The Lightning Child has energy and enthusiasm in abundance it’s not enough to save Ché Walker and Arthur Darvill’s over-long and ultimately self-indulgent adaptation of The Bacchae. The production is a classic example of the creative school of thought that goes: ‘oh well, who knows? Let’s just chuck everything at it’.
At its core is a drag cabaret retelling of Euripides’ classic play with big performances and mad costumes aplenty. It’s a bacchanalian by way of the Notting Hill Carnival, which in and of itself is not too bad an idea. It’s hard to say whether they simply lost faith in it, or whether they were determined to flag up the modern relevance of the story of Dionysus and his followers, but for whatever reason, they’ve interspersed the narrative with some largely unconnected present day stories. So you get a pair of unusually energetic heroin addicts wondering whether or not to keep a dog, a talented violinist’s relationship with her jealous housemate, Neil Armstrong and his wife ahead of the moon landing – and so on.
Even though our guide for the evening, Ladyboy Herald (Jonathan Chambers), tells us that this all makes no sense, this doesn’t really excuse the fact that it does indeed make no sense at all. It’s like that moment when you meet somebody at a party who says: ‘sorry, I talk about myself all the time: it’s what I do,’ before proceeding to talk about themselves in great detail for hours. Putting a flag on a great big flaw doesn’t really excuse the flaw, it just puts a flag on it. And yes, Ladyboy, you’re right, it doesn’t mesh together and it doesn’t make sense. Thanks.
The drag element of the production makes it feel like Walker is keen to deal with gender issues, though what he wants to say about them remains a bit of a mystery. Most of the discussion of sexual politics comes from the uptight, misogynistic Pentheus, an unforgiving part played with good humour and real charm by Clifford Samuel. Pentheus has a lot of thoughts on women and he would like to tell you about them. You do get the impression that this is supposed to come with a level of irony or indicate that Pentheus is the villain of the piece, but his big diatribe about how women entrap their lovers is delivered early on, before his character has been established, so it exists in a vacuum.
In fact this scene, played noisily to the yard, almost feels as if you’re watching a bitter stand-up comedian at Jongleurs. While the monologue itself isn’t coherent enough to be properly offensive, it does feels deeply misguided. This comes at the ten minute mark of a production that’s just under three hours long. That’s a lot of hours.
The cast do their best and there are some lovely performances, in spite of everything. Harry Hepple and Phil Cumbus have a nice chemistry as the heroin addicts Drax and Shug, Cat Simmons makes a beautiful, all-too-brief appearance as Billie Holliday and Tommy Coleman is lots of fun as Dionysus himself. Still, large chunks of the ensemble feel a bit lost. There’s a lack of tightness here, especially in the songs and musical numbers, that leaves the show feeling under-rehearsed and generally unready.
The Lightning Child has a few fun moments and you do get the sense that there’s a better production buried somewhere in here, fighting to get out. Still, it ends up feeling like little more than a waste of everybody’s time – the audience, the director, everyone. A torturously long, rambling waste of time at that.