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Review of The Bald Prima Donna at Upstairs At The Gatehouse

Cast of The Bald Prima DonnaThere are some plays which, despite your best efforts, simply defy either analysis or review, and The Bald Prima Donna is one of these. I’m sitting before my computer, fingers hovering over the keyboard, and the only thing going round and round my head is…”What on earth was that?”

Nevertheless, it is my duty to at least make some attempt to describe the insanity that I witnessed at the Gatehouse pub last night, so…here goes. The name Absurdist Theatre has never been so apt. Ionesco came up with the idea for the play whilst studying English from a primer. The banality of the words, the trite ideas such as “The ceiling is up and the floor is down”, began to depress him unutterably, even leading him to doubt his own belief in the usefulness of language. Eventually the truisms and clichés began to dance, to whirl, to take on a life of their own, and thus the Bald Prima Donna was born.

Even the name of the play is meaningless, the result of a botched line during a performance.

The plot, if it can be called that, is at once simple and sublimely ridiculous. Mrs and Mrs Smith are at home, discussing their dinner and their friends, many of whom are called Bobby Watson. The clock chimes as and when it feels like it.

Mr and Mrs Martin arrive – for dinner or whist, we are not quite sure. There is also some doubt as to how they know each other. The fire-chief arrives in search of fires, the maid recites poetry, there is a fight… Oh, I give up. The story is an irrelevance anyway; the language is the thing. All of the characters communicate – or fail to do so – in irrelevant platitudes, convoluted stories and fables, and strange, truncated observations. Although everybody talks a lot nobody actually says anything at all; they are burdened by language, fettered by it, a fact exquisitely underlined by the hideously awkward silences that pepper the nonsensical conversations.

The staging is effective; the main characters bunched together yet apart, each cocooned in their little bubble of isolation. The set is redolent of the ineffably English bourgeoisie which Ionesco had set out to satirise in particular, as are the characters themselves; although Mr Smith’s attire was somewhat more working class than could have been expected. The cast manage the complex, lunatic text with admirable dexterity; however, their delivery often fails to deliver the ‘mechanical soullessness of daily routine’ called for by Ionesco in the notes. Ionesco’s attack on the pointlessness of language and the lifelessness of the English middle classes requires the actors, especially the couples, to be interchangeable and robotic, but for some reason director Paul Hoskins has chosen to give them distinct personalities. Mrs Smith, in particular, is twitchy and neurotic; hardly admirable traits, but traits nonetheless. Despite this, it is clear that there is real comic talent on the stage. Annie McKenzie is a wonderfully knowing maid, and her mobile, expressive face is just fascinating.

Equally watchable is Guy Remy as the stolid fire-chief. Despite the fact that he originally wrote it as a “tragedy of language” Ionesco’s friends found The Bald Prima Donna incredibly funny, and one can understand why. Towards the end of the play, as the action collapses into total chaos, the characters lose all control of themselves and the nonsensical phrases ricochet wildly around the stage, audience hysteria sets in. The cast appear to be having an equally good time. There is no point in trying to understand this play; just relax and enjoy an evening of entertaining madness.

4 stars

Review by Genni Trickett

The Bald Prima Donna
By Eugene Ionesco
Presented by Slip of the Lip Theatre Company

Welcome to the home of Mr and Mrs Smith – in the suburbs of London. The Martins have popped in for a game of whist. Or is it dinner? Nobody seems quite sure. Why are they four hours late? Where has Mary the Maid been all afternoon? Is she really a famous detective? And why is the local fire chief hiding in the shrubbery?

“Some of the most accomplished actors I saw anywhere across the (Brighton) Fringe bring a delicious Joe Ortonish quality to the physical comedy” – Plays International Magazine

There will be daggers drawn, kisses exchanged and hammers fetched. Frightful stories will be told about red-eyed children, retired country doctors and a snake with a murderous left-hook. And there will be fire. Lots of talk about fire. It’s too highly taxed.

Ionesco’s exploration of the frailties of language, and of the absurdity that arises out of our every day failures to communicate, is more relevant than ever in a world where text speak and poor email etiquette routinely cause offence and confusion. Slip of the Lip Theatre (www.slipofthelip.co.uk) draws out the poignant contemporary relevance while staying faithful to the text and stage directions of Donald Watson’s original translation of this 1950s absurdist classic.

Find out more about Slip of the Lip Theatre at http://www.slipofthelip.co.uk
Follow us on Twitter @SlipOfTheLip1

21st July – 1st August 2015
Tuesdays – Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Saturday 25th & Sunday 26th July at 4pm
Running time: 75 minutes with NO interval
Upstairs At The Gatehouse

Thursday 23rd July 2015


  • Genni Trickett

    Genni is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows. Genni has been passionate about theatre from an early age, performing in various productions throughout school and university. She is currently an enthusiastic member of an amateur dramatic society in South West London. Her favourite thing about living in London is the breath-taking variety of shows and theatrical talent. https://www.facebook.com/genevieve.trickett

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