Watching this production is a frustrating experience. The talent on display is undeniable, from the comic timing of the large ensemble cast to the imaginative design. But the parts never amount to a satisfying whole, slipping instead into nearly three hours of feverish self-indulgence.
I missed Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s eight-hour adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, when it toured to London as part of the 2012 LIFT festival. But, by many accounts, not least those of Exeunt-ers, the company’s staging of the iconic American novel, which relocated it line by line to an office environment, sucked audiences in with the all-enveloping boldness of its vision.
There are glimmers of that here – flickering touches of genius that flare up throughout ERS’s first production of work by a living writer, Sibyl Kempson. From the mocking mournfulness of on-stage piano-playing to the faux-nostalgic crackle of the radio show hosted by the titular Collette (April Matthis) – who wafts through proceedings in sunglasses as a whacked-out narrator and spirit of a changing age – a miasmic atmosphere is well-conjured.
But it’s tied to writing that bears all the hallmark weaknesses of a company-devised piece. Beginning in the dreary nowhereness of the home of Mabrel and Fritz Fitzhubert, it ends in a winter resort that becomes a surreal staging ground for an ancient conflict between paganism and Christianity. Here, though, any attempt at summarising is a distortion; wilful flippancy rules. Kempson burns through meaning cheaply and quickly, revelling in its disposability.
And you know what? That’s fine. Sure, the Brechtian disruption of naturalism gets old quickly – we get it, it’s a play not a mirror – but a nicely Lynchian wood-panelled, quirky aesthetic adds another trick to the pony. And from Laurena Allan’s sensible-shoed Mabrel to Kate Benson’s frustrated Winnfr’d Bexell, the cast imbue their characters with archetypal vividness. They tap into a deeply buried vein of farce, which bolsters all the audience-winking.
But where this show falls apart isn’t in the details, it’s in the bagginess with which they’re all strung together. At one point, in the second half, the characters find themselves stuck up a mountain – for an incessant amount of time. A show certainly doesn’t need a narrative to be worthwhile, but there’s no sense of purpose here beyond the next set-piece. The production sprawls smugly towards nothingness.
Basically, this is a case of the Emperor’s new clothes, if the Emperor’s new clothes were a theatrical conceit. It’s a real shame that – by the end – the amplified, mechanistic cranking sound effect that accompanies every set change might as well be the insular echo of self-applause. For, as bright as its occasional flashes of brilliance are, Fondly, Collette Richland is too dazzled by itself to draw you in.