I’ve heard a lot about Naughty Corner Productions over the last 18-24 months and even had one of my closest friends starring in their latest production: Bob the Russian (along with this new incarnation of Not the Horse. But Thomas Galashan gets no bias from me, if anything he’s got to work the hardest of any cast member to get my seal of approval). So it pains me to say that I’d never given the time to come along to any of their productions before now. But what better place to start than with the show that arguably put them on the Liverpool theatre map? The five year-old, award winning Not the Horse. Does it do enough to deserve a mention as a champion rider? Or is it just another also ran?
The opening scene is interesting in its beginnings and largely sets a precedent for the rest of the performance. It does a good job of setting the tension and establishing the problem in which our unlikely hero, Tony (Nick Sheedy) is going to have to overcome to survive the rest of the play with his life (and testicles) intact. However, the tension soon evaporates abruptly and I’d suggest somewhat prematurely when Beef (Liam Powell-Berry), Minge (Adam Nicholls) & Face (Damien Hughes) ruin Dom Jones’ (Tom Silverton) attempts at intimidating the living daylights out of Tony. This is interestingly done as it takes a dark beginning and flips it completely on its head with some good comic moments that help the audience settle into the world and let them come to terms with the type of piece this is.
I did however, get a sense that the comedy in the scene was over-egged and that from the very outset, each of the henchmen AKA Beef, Minge & Face were pushing the laughs a little too hard in an attempt to raise the energy levels on stage. This worked to some extent but it is hard to sustain for a full two-hour performance. It was interesting at this point so early on to see if the actors could sustain this energy in clawing for the laughs.
The play in itself has a good plot. It has a hero, a problem he must overcome and a set of challenges for him to get past in order for him to be successful in his quest with his trusty sidekicks: Paul (Michael Hawkins) and Stan (Warren Kettle) and the plot is navigated relatively successfully. The sidekick duo compliment Sheedy’s character quite well and the obvious chemistry between the trio is testament to that. I would say that Hawkins’ energy is impressive early on playing Paul, but his level of intensity is at 10 out of 10 the entire play and never changes. Hitting this 10 at the beginning and staying there, doesn’t give his character anywhere to move from, or another angle for him. I’d argue he needs moments of coming down to show a more well-defined character that has another dimension that utilises his range of talents, other than being at this level throughout the entirety of the play.
The problem is in the piece as a whole though, is that I feel that the company have got lost in what they are looking for. It seems as though the piece is lining itself up as something adjacent to the likes of early Guy Ritchie films i.e. Snatch & Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. However, those on stage push way too hard for the laughs and don’t allow tension or stylisation to develop enough to be on the same level as those productions mentioned above.
The comedic style to this piece is apparent and there are some genuinely funny moments. I would say though, that every actor in the piece (other than maybe Nick Sheedy) seems to be in competition with the others for the limelight and they are almost battling one another to see who can get the biggest reaction out of the audience. This does little to actually cover the cast in glory and rather does away with the notion that they are working hard for the piece; but rather that they are acting more for their own self-interests. This attempt by the cast at making the piece more about their laughs and less about the plot makes the piece feel more like Mrs. Brown’s Boys with guns and drugs, rather than Snatch and RocknRolla.
Going back to the idea of Guy Ritchie and his films, one thing stands out for me with Not the Horse that is glaringly missing when compared to the likes of Snatch. And that is a straight man. No, I don’t mean that in terms of sexuality, I’m referring of course to the idea of how to set up and implement comedy on stage. Traditionally, you have your straight man/feeder as an opposing character to the clown. These characters are stereotypically smooth and debonair, or nerdy and awkward. Opposing this character stereotype is the other half of the pairing: the fall guy, or the comic. These characters are there to jump on the straight man’s shortcomings and top it off with a punchline (a quick example would be Morecambe and Wise from the 70’s, highly regarded as Britain’s best double act). If we look at the likes of Snatch & Lock Stock, there are a good handful of comedic characters that jump on punchlines, but there is also a counter-weight to this comedy in the number of straight men that feature. They act as the grounding to the comic’s lunacy and manage to instil tension and something to really raise the stakes when they enter the space, thus driving the piece forward and pushing the narrative along with a threat that is believable and scary. The problem with Not the Horse though, is that their clowns are comics, their straight men are comics and even their hard men are comics. This does nothing but blow the idea of intimidatory behaviour out of the water before it has time to settle. I don’t think this is the world’s biggest problem given the farcical nature of the production, but for it to reach the next level of development and to bring itself into the same talking point as the likes of those mentioned above and all things further afield, it needs its straight men to be just that. Straight men. Characters that are threatening and give off an air of terror. Not high-fiving the audience as they go off-stage or breaking into song to win a cheap laugh. A laugh is much less important to plot development is than a downright terrifying and intimidating character that has the potential to raise the stakes like Silk (Daniel Carmichaerl) clearly has the poise and talent to.
Following on from this point, it also brings up the notion of control and artistic intentions. I like Mikee Dickinson’s work. I’ve seen his work outside of Naughty Corner and he is talented in what he creates. The transition scenes and some of the ideas in this piece are testament to that talent. I do feel though, that the actors need reigning in and that they need reminding over whose artistic intention they are there to fulfil. That isn’t to say that Dickinson has lost control of the cast for this, far from it. He should however, exert more control over the cast as the director and give them boundaries that they should be reigned in from should they exceed those limits, as it becomes detrimental to the nature of the piece as opposed to benefitting it. An example of this would be the shadow-puppet scene. It needed Dickinson to step in and direct the actors to be in precisely the position where each member of the large cast on the small stage should be, so as to allow the entire audience the best possible view of the performance/shadow-puppet shenanigans. Instead though, both Sheedy and Hawkins positioned themselves on the right side of the audience and completely blocked off what is arguably one of the most climactic scenes (pun intended), of the entire play to almost a third of the entire audience, myself included. This left me somewhat disappointed, as the scene itself got a rousing reaction from two thirds of the audience, but those that had their view blocked were much less enthusiastic.
One final example of this point would be the use of language. Now, I’m no prude and love the use of the word ‘fuck.’ But it has got to be justified. At one point I counted more swearing than useful dialogue in a line from one of the characters and it is does nothing but cheapen the language of the play and lowers the tone from intelligent writing into bordering on repetitive and predictable.
There are a lot of good factors that contribute to this piece though. The soundtrack to the piece is second to none and compliments events happening on stage to a tee. On top of that, the technical side of things are almost perfect in terms of timing and lighting. The lighting design is brilliant and executed near faultlessly – my only qualm is the opening scene in which Silverton’s body is lit and his face isn’t. The sound design is effortlessly brilliant and gives the piece some serious attitude. It has also added a few new songs to my Spotify playlists for that matter, so thanks for that.
Furthermore, in terms of creativity, I found that there is an awful lot to talk about. The ketamine scene was phenomenally timed and executed, and – without giving too much away – gave me nightmares of weird reverse centaur-like hybrids in tracksuits and skirts. The piece is clearly farcical and playful in nature and lives up to that style. Furthermore, in scenes like this, with actors working as an ensemble to create a scene that benefits the script rather than how many laughs they’re getting individually, it really raises the bar of the piece and stands head and shoulders above other scenes quite easily.
There are some stand-out performances in there too. Nick Sheedy as Tony (and the piece’s protagonist) really helps guide the piece and his relatively cool head amidst all the chaos is admirable. Adversely though, his breakdown had me laughing louder than at any point of the play. This was down to his relative stability and appearance as a ‘straight man’ until this point and so maximised the effectiveness of his comic timing due to the audience not having seen this side before. Furthermore, Callum Forbes’ physicality as Ernie was really well-developed. His slumped shoulders and vacant stare nailed the tone of his character.
For me though, the best runner of this race and my out-right favourite has got to be Daniel Carmichaerl as Silk. His stage presence is palpable and he delivers a stand-out performance that is ominous, filled with tension and very well delivered. Even with the Disney song and the use of the pointless accents for a quick laugh, I might add (which I am willing to overlook for the most part).
One final thing to add in favour of the piece, is that I think it has definitely found its audience. The Royal Court audience members LOVES a scouse comedy and Not the Horse does exactly what that audience is looking for. It’s not overly-complicated, it’s not overly-clever in its intentions and it cracks a joke that a working-class, laid-back audience can access easily. Which in itself is a stroke of a good piece of theatre. Working-class audiences in theatre are fast in decline as the every-day ‘Joe Public’ doesn’t always feel comfortable going to see the likes of Pinter or Chekhov, as they feel it is inaccessible; I know I certainly feel that way sometimes anyway. Not the Horse is the opposite of that. It is there for those audiences that don’t want something that is going to leave them questioning morality and life itself. It is there for it not to be taken too seriously; and it is there for those that want that bawdy, bodacious laughter spilling out of them for an easy watch. If Dickinson can reign in the cast slightly and tighten up the comedy so that it has a sharper edge to it as opposed to a laugh-a-minute no matter the laugh, it has the potential to move up a level.
I think I made a good point when I compared it to a TV show earlier. That show appeals to an audience of millions in a not too dissimilar way that Not the Horse does comedically.
Perhaps I was onto something when I called it Mrs. Brown’s Boys with drugs and guns. And not in a wholly negative way either.
Theatrevolt rating: 3.5 stars