Writer: Adapted from Anthony Burgess
Director: Alexandra Spencer–Jones
Lighting Designer: James Baggaley
Combat: Lewis Penfold
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
A homecoming of sorts. Anthony Burgess was raised in Manchester and set his brutal satire on late 20th Century society in the city. The Lowry Theatre sits five minutes tram distance from central Manchester, and how far his dystopian vision of a near-future urban environment lies from our current world view may depend on whether you watched the 2011 riots on a flat screen in the living room or were stealing one from the Arndale Centre.
Anyone who saw the film on its first release in 1971 will attest to its shock value. Kubrick channeling Peckinpah into the middle class fear of the underclass, the mob, the “Yoof”. Little Alex leads his asocial gang of Droogs in a depraved guerrilla war on normal society, until he is jailed, subjected to aversion therapy, and returned to a society that does not want him back. His forced aversion to violence has also castrated his love of classical music, and turned him into the unnatural mechanical fruit whose metaphor resurfaces both verbally and visually throughout the show.
Action to the Word set their own bar pretty high by referencing Hamlet’s instructions to the players. Further, this is a performance which depends on action as much as words to convey the viciousness, the violence, the swagger, which underpin the horror show storyline, and the company deliver in spades with an exhausting physical display. Beethoven provided the original book and movie soundtrack to the ultra-violence and alienated lifestyle, but Ludwig is now joined by a more motley crew including Placebo, the Eurythmics and Bowie, to considerable effect.
The cast list defines everyone bar Adam Search, as a splendid Alex (looking like a pumped up Morrissey), as “Ensemble”, and the ten actors truly delivered a team performance. Damien Hasson deserves credit for his powerful contributions as the pathetic probation officer and the over-zealous cleric. But all should share the credit. That it was an all male production might have appealed to Burgess. The original film glam shock was supercharged to heights of homo-eroticism that would have appealed to his more exotic tastes. And as women were mere decorations or victims in the original, their absence from this production is no detraction.
The heightened language of the gangs inevitably harks back to the Capulets and Montagues of Romeo and Juliet, and via the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story, to a strictly take on choreographed violence. Does it work? To an extent. But it also tends to turn the brutality into ballet, artifice, and therefore screened from emotive engagement.
This is an almost relentlessly monochrome show. Everything is black and white. Or – for light relief – orange. But it is also essentially two-dimensional. The simplicity of the staging – only a table and a few chairs for most scenes – stripped away the furniture. The costumes were rarely more than simple vests and pants. The lighting was rarely called on for highlighting. Some scenes, such as the court, or the prison chapel, were little more than dumb show or tableaux. Somehow this alienated the empathy which might have made Alex’s manipulation and exploitation by the various forces at play an object of pity, of compassion. Ultimately too – and this is a weakness of Burgess’ novel not of the production – the ending is lame. Alex grows up, and distances himself from his youthful excesses to settle down and get a mortgage.
This production has a great deal going for it, and deserves to reach a broad audience. But it is saddled with some of the imperfections of its source, and no amount of physical energy, of attitude, can compensate for these.