Saturday 14th January 2017
Raising Martha had instant appeal for us. It is on at the Park Theatre, a venue which has consistently put on interesting and engaging work. It is a dark comedy, always a plus for us. And it was advertised with a high quality cast that included Joel Fry, Jeff Rawle and Jasper Britton (more of him later).
Ostensibly, this is a comedy about animal rights activists terrorising a frog farmer who has literally developed a siege mentality, holed up in one room with his own brand of booby-trap security. The latest escapade is to steal the bones of his late mother, egged on by his niece, bringing about a macabre and unwelcome family reunion. As the play goes on we find that everyone has their own motives, including the policeman who is supposedly investigating the crime.
David Spicer has certainly dug up some interesting themes to play with – the politics of protest and human rights (a twist on the age-old theme of people loving animals more than humans); there is the dark undercurrent of sibling rivalry and parental manipulation, and the ultimate question of what gives humans the right to mistreat animals. Ultimately, though, it feels as though there is too much material, and a lot of exposition. The main problem is that the absurdist comedy is not fast-paced enough to get away with the, well, absurdities. The plot needs to be more focused, even if it is unfeasible. And at times, there are so many holes that it becomes hard to hold on to anything. Even the most far-fetched story needs a grain of truth, and here it doesn’t quite convince. For example, we learn that the frog farmer has switched to a new crop – cannabis laced with hallucinogenic toad venom. So far so clever, except that as we know from watching ‘Breaking Bad’, it’s all about distribution, and we can’t see how a virtual recluse would be making any money from his wares. There is a lot of action which doesn’t move the plot forward, which becomes frustrating in the end.
The staging also doesn’t seem to serve the play very well. This may sound rather churlish in such a small space, but it feels a little over-elaborate. A lot of effort has been spent creating the atmosphere of the run down farm overgrown with cannabis plants, making it hard to mentally switch locations when we move to the animal activists flat. A brilliant opening, where the animal terrorists are seen on a raised platform at the back literally shoveling earth down onto the scene below, becomes confusing when the same area has to double as the various burial sites of poor old Martha.
Having said all this, we have to give credit for some highly enjoyable moments – Spicer clearly has an ear for witty dialogue and has created some amusing characters. Jeff Rawle’s passive-aggressive policeman, longing for a Midsomer style rural murder case, is an absolute joy to watch. Joel Fry and Tom Bennett make an excellent double-act as Jago and Marc, a classic ‘dumb and dumber’ relationship which works very well thanks to the high energy wit and timing they bring to their scenes. Julian Bleach morphs from respectable garden centre entrepreneur to psychotic, erm, psychopath in a captivating speech about slowly boiling frogs, ending with the spine-chilling line ‘well, I’m jumping out of my pan!’ as he sharpens up a sickle he has found under the sofa. It is bizarre moments such as these that give the play a shot in the arm of dark humour and energy, even if it is not sustained.
Which leads us to the final mystery surrounding this production: whatever happened to Jasper Britton? There were some other cast changes which were announced, but in a rather farcical series of re-photoshopped posters for the play, he was literally airbrushed out of history. That original one must be collectible, a bit like the posters for ‘The Producers’ featuring Richard Dreyfus who never starred in the show (not that we are drawing any conclusions otherwise). We don’t expect a blow-by-blow account of what happened, but looking at the twitter line, it seems Britton’s departure happened early enough for some kind of advance announcement to be made.