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Review of The Ungrateful Biped at the White Bear Theatre

The Ungrateful Biped Philip Goodhew - Photo by Andreas Lambis
The Ungrateful Biped Philip Goodhew – Photo by Andreas Lambis

With so many imponderables and problems to encounter in life, it’s perhaps not surprising that theatre can be seen as a form of escapism. A happy and exuberant show can provide theatre patrons with warmth and positivity – and, assuming laughter is indeed the medicine, it may be beneficial to one’s personal health. It has even been said that certain productions should be made available on the National Health Service as a treatment for depression. Not being a medical professional in any way, I can only respond thus: maybe, maybe not.

Either way, it is bold that The Ungrateful Biped should portray a nameless character (Philip Goodhew) who is so thoroughly dislikeable, and (presumably) expect audiences to enjoy the performance. If one knows one is unpleasant, then in most circumstances this would suggest they are not actually as unpleasant as they believe themselves to be. But listening to the descriptions of events in this man’s past, his powers of self-perception are almost horrifyingly accurate. “The antithesis of a normal person” indeed.

This adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground is, I think, best understood with some knowledge of the original text, or at least the context to it. When the book was first published in 1864, this was a period of significant change in Russia, a country that had started to not only accept but positively embrace the comparatively liberal culture of Western European countries. This created an identity crisis for those who weren’t completely sold on all things European, particularly if they felt this really meant losing Russian culture and traditions.

The narrative is brought into London, and into the modern day. Stripped of its original backdrop, frustration with changes in 1860s Russian society and unfamiliar morals and codes of behaviour from overseas is replaced with anger at everyone and everything (at one point, the Dalai Lama and Amanda Holden are mentioned in the same breath). This character has become, to coin a phrase, a rebel without a cause.

Except this isn’t youthful defiance, or rather it isn’t anymore. The main elements of the story as Dostoyevsky’s book are all there, commendably, and easy to recognise for those who have perused it. Whilst I personally found the complete lack of sentimentality somewhat glorious, the plot gradually becomes so sordid until there’s a description of a crime against the person, further compounding the man’s frankly hateful nature.

Some highly acid humour adds a much needed extra layer to proceedings, though even these are mostly unrepeatable putdowns of others. It is a slight pity, in one sense, that it is inappropriate to reproduce them here, because the punchlines are, for the most part, heavily witty. They are also entirely consistent with the angry fellow who goes as far as inviting himself to a dinner held in honour of a former fellow school pupil who he didn’t get on with, just so he can exercise some spite.

The staging could have been better – some fellow theatregoers reported problems with an overhead light that affected their vision of the stage. Also, as the man is recording a video blog, a television screen relays the recording, as he both looks and speaks upstage. And another thing: I am reliably informed the screen was only visible to certain sections of the audience.

Nonetheless, the contemporary re-setting does allow for some self-reflection. Perhaps the man has a point, for example, when he rails against the superfluity of taking to social media to tell online contacts about inconsequential matters. Goodhew’s acting is consistently excellent and convincing throughout, portraying the character as uncompromisingly difficult. As with the book, the show ends abruptly – and, all things considered, this is an impassioned and intense production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Immured in a horrid basement flat in the hinterlands of London, an anonymous Man creates a video blog. Haunted by disturbing memories and nurturing an abiding malice towards all humanity, including himself, he embarks on a forensic analysis of his “underground soul”. Sick, spiteful, and ugly, yet convinced of his own genius, he is tormented by the belief that his intelligence is a disease which, in an irrational world, renders him less valuable than an insect. Bitter, alienated and crippled with inertia, the Man shamelessly revels in the depths of degradation he has plumbed in order to validate his existence and demands the right to screw up his life as he see fit. After all, is he really any different to the rest of us?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky created the underground Man in 1864. In doing so, he created one of the most paradoxical, self-lacerating and mesmerising characters in literature; the first existentialist anti-hero.

Rupert Graves makes his debut as a director with The Ungrateful Biped, a one-man play starring and adapted by Philip Goodhew from Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It has its world premiere at the White Bear Theatre.

LISTINGS INFORMATION
THE UNGRATEFUL BIPED
White Bear Theatre
138 Kennington Park Road
London, SE11
Tuesday 30 January to Saturday 17 February
www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk

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