Friday, July 28, 2017

Review: 'Sheep' at the White Bear Theatre, 27th July 2017

Sheep reviewed by David James

Rating: 2 Stars

At a music festival a couple of years ago I went three nights without sleep. By the time that third day rolled around the experience was hellish: the ground constantly seemed to tilt underneath my feet, I was extremely photosensitive and found it next to impossible to form a coherent train of thought, let along communicate. So my sympathies are with Sheep's protagonist Dexy (Ciaran Lonsdale), who apparently hasn't slept for three weeks.

Whether a goose down pillow, ineffective sleeping aids or gnawing psychological problems are to blame, Dexy is at the end of his tether. And so, in his bleary-eyed state, he's visited by a three strange late night visitors. There's Leo (James Groom), a drug-fuelled, sexually omnivorous Joker lookalike; Vic (Bruce Kitchener), a night bus driver with a love of tea and board games; and Margot (Niamh Watson), a friendly nocturnal woman who spends her night walking the streets and getting picked up by a succession of "uncles".

The show takes place inside Dexy's flat and quickly smears the borders of reality. A backdrop of extreme insomnia automatically makes the audience suspicious that what we're seeing isn't the gospel truth, something quickly confirmed by the intrusion of surreal elements like half polar bear/half chimpanzee genetic monstrosities that hunt paedophiles on the Circle Line at night.

The further into the play we proceed, the more surreal things become. Elements and characters hinted at earlier scenes come to dominate proceedings and Dexy hits breaking point as he struggles to process the twisted world around him.

Playwright David Cantor, previously responsible for multiple episodes of My Family and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, consistently displays a decent turn of phrase, peppering the script with memorable lines like "it'd be like Brian Blessed reading Mein Kampf through a megaphone". It's the amphetamine-wired Leo that gets the best of the bunch, leading us down a barmy rabbit hole of xenophobic conspiracy theories that encompass Nigerian traffic wardens, Polish builders and a secret 'Latin alliance' between Italy and Spain.

But though Cantor has an arsenal of witty lines, the plot is severely lacking. I'm not exactly a stickler for traditional narrative structure, but while Sheep has a beginning and an end, it's lacking a middle. In its place, we get a pile-up of bizarre elements that increasingly feel like a distraction from the fact that there's actually not much going on.

Most of this is down to Dexy just not being that interesting. Granted, he's the one normal guy surrounded by a tornado of weird, but we're never given a reason to care about, sympathise or even like the guy - not helped by him spending most of the play grumpily bitching at the much more likeable supporting cast. If you reduce the play down to the skeleton, it's about Dexy facing up to his personal flaws and if we don't care whether he does or not... that's a problem.

Furthering bogging things down is that Ciaran Lonsdale's performance doesn't exactly set the world on fire. His Dexy comes across less like an insomniac on the edge and more like someone who's just missed their bus, not to mention not even attempting to convey the visible, red-eyed exhaustion of someone who hasn't slept for a couple of weeks.

It's a shame because the supporting cast really gives it some welly. Bruce Kitchener is great as the slightly dopey, slightly boring yet weirdly dignified bus driver. It's touching to hear about his plainly stated quest for developing his empathy in order to win back his wife and his enthusiasm for board games. 

But by far the best element of Sheep (and pretty much the one thing that makes the whole show worthwhile) is James Groom's Leo. Whenever he's on stage it's as if the show has been hit by defibrillators, his delivery, energetic body language and charisma outright entertaining. As Groom rattles off lines like "I was being given a reacharound by the Minister for Housing at the time" I found myself wishing I was just watching a show about Leo, which I'm willing to bet would be a far more fun night out.

Groom gets the lion's share of the night's laughs and almost single-handedly wrenches the show out of the doldrums. Sheep is essentially a rather porridgy, self-consciously surreal drama that doesn't work particularly well that happens to contain one wildly successful element. Whether that's enough to splash out for a ticket is your call.

Sheep is at The White Bear Theatre until 5th August. Tickets here.

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