One of the more famous faces at this year’s Fringe, movie star John Hannah plays a man who may or may not be Harry Houdini in this ‘madcap comedy’ by Bulgarian playwright Hristo Boytchev. Unfortunately, ‘The Titanic Orchestra’ is too weighed down by meta-commentary and sludgy storytelling to be either madcap or funny.
A group of vagabonds led by the imperious Meto (Jonathan Rhodes) linger at an abandoned railway station, plotting to scam any trains that stop by (which they never do). There’s Louko (Stuart Crowther), the former station master; Doko (Ivan Barnev), a drunk who pines for his deceased bear; and Lyubka (Heidi Niemi), the group’s lone female, described cryptically as ‘an ex-something something’ and not given much character development beyond that. Their barely-there existence is shaken up by the arrival of Hannah’s maybe-conjurer, maybe-conman Godot- er, Harry, who promises to grant them escape if they can keep him supplied with booze.
As a play that aims to tackle the concepts of dreams, make-believe and illusion, it’s tricky to pin down why ‘The Titanic Orchestra’ doesn’t work. Is Rhodes overacting because he’s not very good, or because Meto wants to be the self-described ‘main character’? Is the naïve Lyubka the victim of sexist writing, or a parody of sexist writing in theatre? Between Barnev’s slurring Bulgarian brogue, Rhodes’s Cambridge yell and Hannah's passable American accent, it’s hard to pin down the play’s setting – is this because no-one’s agreed on an accent beforehand, or because it’s saying that all theatre is a flimsy illusion anyway?
If you find that tiring to read, imagine having to sit through it. Barnev, perhaps more comfortable with the text due to his and Boytchev’s shared mother tongue, is the only player who really succeeds in generating empathy in the audience (though again, this may be a function of the script). Hannah is fine as Harry, injecting the briefest sense of lightness before the weight of the third act drags everything back down. The rest of the cast soldier on as best they can, but the laughs are either poorly timed or non-existent, and the finale, though poignantly staged, is more of a relief than a revelation.