In Annie Siddons’s rich, magical storytelling show ‘Dennis of Penge’, fried chicken isn’t just a greasy late-night stomach-liner. It’s a social ritual to be shared and savoured. And, in one particular Penge branch of Fantastic Melly’s Chicken Shop, it’s the starting point of a journey that mixes mythological weight with a solid grounding in the bits of London that most theatre doesn’t talk about.
Wendy is depressed, recovering from addiction, and getting walked all over by Neil Pratt, the pen-pusher who’s turned her down for disability benefits and has left her with a labyrinthine struggle to get Jobseeker’s Allowance. Her much-needed box of chicken reunites her with the titular Dennis, her childhood friend who’s metamorphosed into a god-like figure with a scheme for revenge. Annie Siddons and Jorell Coiffic-Kamall tell the pair’s stories, as well as embodying a host of vividly drawn bit-players like Wendy’s devoutly religious mother Hortense, her fellow AA goers, benefits assessors, and the crowds that fill Penge’s streets as the narrative surges into gear.
Siddon’s story bursts with references that SE residents will recognise, and chuckle at: real street names, favoured pubs and hangouts, even the Crystal Palace dinosaurs. They jostle up against the odd nod to her source, Euripedes' 'The Bacchae', with its furious, limb-tearing quest for justice. And the whole strange brew is aerated by Zohar’s original music. ‘Dennis of Penge’ is framed as gig theatre but that doesn’t quite capture its energy: Siddons doesn’t sing, and Coiffic-Kamall’s voice is ethereal rather than rabble-rousing, floating over the jangle of guitar strings or the primal thud of drums.
Sprawling out over two hours, ‘Dennis of Penge’ could maybe do with some tidying and tightening, with a few more really memorable melodies to hold it all together. But it’s worth sticking with through the story’s muddier twists, because this is something special, mixing compassion for its characters with a primal energy that simmers, then comes roaring into furious life.