The Bald Prima Donna*** (Old Red Lion Theatre, 5 December 2013)

Posted: December 7, 2013 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

The grand master of Theatre of the Absurd, Eugene Ionesco, has become rather out of fashion in Britain in recent times. Yet this one-act play, written in 1948 and Ionesco’s first, is the French equivalent to The Mousetrap, having run in Paris since 1957. Romanian by birth, Ionesco spent most of his adult life in France and, at the time of writing this play, he was learning English, apparently fascinated by English words and phrases. He sets the play in London, but his knowledge would have been too rudimentary for him to have written a meaningful satire of English ways, rather it seems to be a nonsensical flight of fancy developed from ideas arising during his studies of the language. If the play’s popularity in France is because the French really see the English as depicted here, it is rather worrying, but perhaps it could explain a few things. The setting of this production is a fancy dress party taking place in a vault, with sounds from outside of some sort of apocalyptic event audible over Wham’s Last Christmas. Hosting are Mr and Mrs Smith (Patrick Lenney and Helena Payne), who are dressed as a convict and a hornet. They will be serving cold ham and warm beer to their guests, Mr and Mrs Martin (Darren Beaumont and Cheska Moon), dressed as a clown and Cinderella. Their maid (Judy Tcherniak) appears as Queen Victoria and they are later joined by a fireman (Rupert Baldwin). Unshackled from responsibilities for characterisation and exploration of hidden meanings, the performers can overact with impunity and they all do so with great glee. This play is about as grounded as a helium balloon and trying to find the point of it would be missing the point of it. The only way to approach it is to go along for the ride, but those of us used to grappling with the complexities of, say, Pinter or Stoppard can enjoy sitting back and relaxing in the knowledge that what seems a load of nonsense is, in fact, a load of nonsense. Occasionally absurdist comedy here comes to mean sequences of an absurd length, with endless repetition, or jokes that are only funny because they are so absurdly unfunny. But normal rules of dramatic structuring have been thrown out of the window and what we see is a play that has no logic, goes round in a circle and ends with its beginning. The titular character never appears and, when someone asks “what about The Bald Prima Donna?” towards the end of the play, the fireman replies “she always wears her hair the same way”. So at least the title is explained, but, as for everything else, it is anyone’s guess.

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