Sunday, January 18, 2015

'The Quentin Dentin Show' at Rich Mix, 17th January 2015

Any show that ends with a dead angel splattered with raw mince is basically alright in my book. That's the concluding image of The Quentin Dentin Show, a strange little musical amuse-bouche that dances to the beat of its own drum. Formed from equal parts magical realist musical, punk rock gig, middle of the road sitcom and cultish self-help gig, this is a show that delights in keeping the audience off-balance, taking an almost sadistic delight in zigging just when you think it's going to zag.

Our focus are the troubles of a young couple: Keith (Jack Welch) and Nat (Florence Wright). They've recently graduated and moved in together, Nat hoping to put her degree in pharmacy to good use and Keith intending to get started on his first novel. Anyone with even a smidge of life experience can probably see where this is going. Cut to a couple of weeks later; Keith is procrastinating like hell as inspiration eludes him, slowly succumbing to depression and worthlessness. Meanwhile Nat, who's working six days a week, is fostering a growing resentment of Keith for lounging around all day doing nothing.

These are rocks so jagged that even the most loving relationship can founder on. Keith and Nat desperately need a lighthouse to guide them, and they get one in the form of Quentin Dentin (Henry Carpenter). Supernaturally emerging from the radio Quentin is supercilious, vain and behaves like a game show host. He promises to fix Keith and Nat's miserable lives, granting their deepest fantasies in an effort to give them friends, success, money and beauty.

Accepting his offer, the show heads into the surreal: Quentin showing them the reality of their fantasies (Keith a successful writer, Nat a third world humanitarian). He gives them a taste of common fantasies, allowing them to experience what it'd be like to be hard-bitten detectives fighting 'the man', rock superstars and even astronauts. As we progress through these fantasies Quentin begins to seem ever more diabolical; eventually offering them bliss in the form of an ultra-antidepressant, which will dissolve the parts of the brain that cause doubt and inaction.

Quentin is helped along by two grinning assistants and a rock band at stage right. They're all in paint coveralls and work as Quentin's limbs, enacting his actions and musically conveying his emotions. The upshot is that there's three basic types of drama overlapping each other, firstly a straightforward musical performance from the band, then the domestic drama of Keith and Nat and finally the gameshow surrealness of Quentin.

Quentin Dentin (Henry Carpenter)
Lashed together, these three forms make for a juddering, ramshackle contraption, yet one that just about functions. That it works at all is largely down to the charisma and dynamism of Henry Carpenter's Quentin. Carpenter, also the writer and musically directed, puts in a Herculean effort to drag this towards success, straining every dramatic muscle in his body to drag this forward. The best weapons in his arsenal are his curiously Ken-dollish features and the terrifyingly confident gaze that you'd usually see beaming out from televangelists.  

When he's not on stage things wobble a bit. No blame can be assigned to the two 'friends', Ella Donaldson and Sonja Zobel, who put in similarly energetic, creepy Stepfordian performances. But though great, these are less characters and more living props. Unfortunately the few not so hot moments spring from Keith and Nat's performances. 

Perhaps because of the lack of stage mics there's a declarative quality to their dialogue that drains it of emotion. As performers Welch and Wright are caught between two poles; both having to convey casual domestic intimacy while simultaneously filling a very large performance space. Trying to accomplish both results in stilted dialogue and overly mannered performances. Quentin, with his 4th wall busting TV presenter persona never has this problem, as he's performing as much to us as he is to Keith and Nat.

That isn't a fatal blow, at about an hour long the show has brevity on its side, whenever it's not great at least it's not long before we get to something new. But these problems mean it's a qualified success rather than an unreserved one.  There's more than a germ of a great idea here, and Carpenter is onto something special with the Quentin Dentin persona. A touch more development and this would be something to really write home about.

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