The Crocodile is an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 150-year-old short story, Крокодил. It’s an enjoyable show; Tom Basden’s script translates the original into a farcical parable on insta-fame. Ivan and Zack visit the zoo, Ivan gets eaten by a crocodile. Then everything takes a Roald Dahl sort of turn, and Ivan develops quite a fondness for his new surroundings, attracting the public with song and increasingly grotesque dance pieces as Ivan further inhabits his crocodile host.
Spend a month reading the news and you’ll bear witness to any number of ‘rises’ and ‘falls’ of people who seem to have stumbled into fame and stuck there. Probably as a consequence of my reading this morning, the figure of Katie Hopkins comes to mind, among others. We’ve between us bred a menagerie of public puppets – fit for any occasion, any amount of derision, of predictable politics – Ivan becomes, slowly then all at once, one of these. In The Crocodile, crowd pleasing is an addictive force, which leads to capital gain, which leads to the eradication of any self-governed identity.
The culmination of this comes with Ivan kneeling before the Tsar, finally abandoning his anti- monarchist and capitalist idealism for fame. I realise I’m painting the whole as incredibly grim, which couldn’t be further from the actual experience of the play. Madcap is probably a good word for this rapid, loud, physical show. Ciarán Owens’s gradual (d)evolution into a post-human half-crocodile, complete with skin-splitting, bone-cracking SFX, is gruesome and compelling. The show’s finale combines autotuned pop with a Glitter Cannon and I couldn’t be happier about that.
Marek Larwood, though. Marek Larwood, as ‘Mr Popov, etc.’ performs as if entirely on another level to the rest of the cast. I’m sure I can’t be the first to notice but Larwood is a comic genius. Perhaps by virtue of him being given a selection of the best lines/parts to play with, perhaps by virtue of him having real big eyes, probably by virtue of him just being proper good at being proper funny. The Crocodile was elevated every time he was onstage. Perfect comic timing, wonderfully self-aware performance, all-round bloody brilliant comic acting.
I wouldn’t describe the show’s politics as confused, but very often they are sidelined. In the show’s programme, Tom Basden describes Dostoevsky’s original as ‘a story about the cold-blooded sanity of free market economics […] people who’ve been consumed by the system become the most loyal consumers.’ Here I think Basden summarises very neatly the driving force behind the play. If there are a politics at play in this production, they criticise a symptom of the larger system Basden writes about. Ned Bennett’s direction frequently favours pushing farce to the fore. And I’ve no issue with the majority of how this production plays out – there was just something uneasy about listening to Ivan ranting naively about homelessness while the audience sat in the Manchester International Festival Pavilion, a five minute walk from the homeless occupation of St Anne’s Square.
There’s certainly scope for an anticapitalistic reading of The Crocodile, but combined with the piece’s context as part of Manchester International Festival, and its lack of engagement with its political surroundings, this disappears into the background. What we do have in spades, though, is energy, conviction and some hilarious moments of performance. Fly Davis’s design and Tom Mills’s sound make a glorious spectacle of what is technically an incredibly tight production. The whole effect leaves the show absurd, but something prevents it from escalating to alarmingly absurd, which is a shame and possibly me being greedy.