Thursday, July 26, 2007

Elling: Trafalgar Studios, 24 July

When John Simm says that this play is 'sweet' - as he has during every single interview he's had to squirm his way through these last few weeks - you'd better believe him. Elling radiates warmth, and revels in the joy to be found in being different. But sweet can turn to saccharine when there is a complete lack of a villain, as there is here - unless, of course, you are provided with real belly laughs, along with that warm glow.

Elling, as we receive it, is an adaptation of a Norwegian play, which is based on an Oscar-nominated film, which in turn is based on a trilogy of books by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, and if anything has been lost in translation, then the original must have been a rare masterpiece. It follows Elling and Kjell Bjarne as they learn to live in a city-centre apartment given to them by social services - their first steps into The Real World, after being cocooned and contained within an institution. Elling is a poet, a theologian and a philosopher, but he also likes to sleep in the cupboard, and proclaims that neither public conveniences nor 'going out' are his forte. Obsessed with his mother, he has never got over, or even accepted her death. While Elling must cope with the angst of genius, Kjell Bjarne is driven by more mundane forces - the desire to 'get some chicks' and to eat. He may be less refined than Elling in his speech, but it soon becomes clear that his problems are not as severe, and his good heart slowly, gently coaxes Elling to do things he would never have been able to do his own.

This relationship is the classic odd couple set up, and none the less beautiful for it. Outside may be a world of crowds and friends and dangers - all of them new and scary - but they can at least start to face them together. The most gorgeous scene in the play comes at Christmas, when the two exchange gifts. As Kjell Bjarne hands over his present, Elling tentatively takes it in his hands and examines it with the look of someone who has just been presented the Holy Grail, glittering and sacred. The gift is stunning, a model of their apartment block made out of matchsticks, but Elling looks just as happy and grateful when it is still wrapped up, such is the importance of receiving a gift from his friend Kjell Bjarne - who, by the way, is equally thrilled with a pen containing a lady whose clothes come off when you turn it upside down.

The source material may have been wonderful, but the writing is here pitched absolutely perfectly, credit to adaptor Simon Bent. Many of the laughs he laughs do come from the ridiculous things that Elling and Kjell Bjarne say and do, but it can never be mean-spirited in the context of a play which imbues them with such humanity, and champions their daily triumphs, no matter how small. The quality of the writing is also evident in the gradual nature of the progress of the two. At first, Elling announces 'Mother did all the cooking - I was in charge of ideology' (one of the play's very best lines) but by the end they are functioning much more 'normally'; facing life's problems without being overwhelmed by them.

Let's move onto the performances, then, something I've been saving up until last. John Simm as Elling is, well, ridiculous. He puts on a silly voice, gesticulates wildly and contorts his face with every line. But it is amazing. Ridiculously amazing, without doubt one the finest central performances, comic or otherwise, I've seen. His timing is impeccable, knows exactly when to change from over-the-top to small and poignant, and inhabits the character (a gift for any actor, admitedly) to such an extent that John Simm disappears almost entirely. Did I spend the first few minutes looking for little glimpses of Sam Tyler, or listening out for a tiny Mancunian twang? Yes, of course, but he gave away nothing, and I'm glad. If anything, this huge strength of the production is almost a failing - Simm's performance is so odd and so impressive that it threatens to overwhelm the whole thing. It is to the credit of the other actors that he simply dominates it.

This play could just be an enjoyable two-hours' entertainment and nothing more, but thanks to the strength of the writing, and a central performance you won't forget in a hurry, you come out of the theatre feeling you've actually seen something incredibly special.


Matt_c said...

I keep on walking past the theatre and thinking, hmmmm, now that looks quite interesting.

Now I know.

AnnaWaits said...

Go for it :)

Interval Drinks said...

Absolutely, it's a wonderful play. Warm and uplifting and, yes, sweet - but not in a cloying way. Simm is superb - Elling is definitely one of the best things I've seen this year.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Oh to sweep off to London with ease...!

Dead envious! Sounds a treat.

AnnaWaits said...

You can find time! Then let me know and I'll come too! :)

Stu_n said...

I almost didn't realise how good John Simm had been until he stood up to take his bow at the end, flexed his shoulders... and turned back into John Simm.

Also, I have found myself saying "Holy shit!" quite a lot.

AnnaWaits said...

That little transformation for the bow was so cool! It was nice to see John Simm, even if it was just for a minute.