Inescapably odd but twinklingly sweet, the plot and characters of absurdist playwright Anthony Neilson’s ‘Narrative’ shimmy and shake like the contents of an existential snowglobe.
It’s magnetically charming, which is good going for a devised play in which a major strand revolves around actor Oliver Rix – playing a more successful version of himself – slowly cracking up as he tries to work out who has been sending him grotesquely explicit images of their arsehole. And that’s not the strangest thing in ‘Narrative’, which encompasses glue gun-toting assassins, an atonal rendition of David Bowie’s recent comeback single, and a lot of weird stuff to do with bison.
Whether ‘Narrative’ has an overarching plot per se is a somewhat headachey question. But there is a sort of message to its overlapping absurdist storylines, namely that to stay sane all of us try to impose neat narratives upon a chaotic world that constantly repudiates our feeble efforts.
Fortunately ‘Narrative’ plays with this idea rather than preaches it, through a series of loopy but poignant vignettes in which the cast – who co-devised the show with Neilson – confront their own insecurities and frailties via a series of laugh out loud surrealist sketches.
Because the cast are actors, there is a lot about acting: Rix plays himself as a rising star maddened by his inability to understand the arseholes; Brian Doherty is a veteran left rudderless after he is killed off in a hit show; Barnaby Power plays Rix’s sadsack best friend, reduced to advertising something called a ‘foot mouse’, dejectedly surrendering himself to the narrative of humilation.
The funniest, most poignant and least self-conscious turn comes from fast rising star Zawe Ashton. She plays a desperately needy version of herself, touchingly determined to find continuity between her mother’s life and her own, ludicrous obsessed with reading meaning into a series of casual relationships. She also does a pretty amusing cat impression.
Somewhat redolent of a particularly fruitful end of year project for an actors’ therapy group, ‘Narrative’ is not going to be for everyone. But it is very funny, and there is an unvarnished charm to it that makes it all incredibly winning: the strangeness isn’t arch, it’s from the heart. Andrzej Lukowski