Dennis of Penge – Ovalhouse, London

Writer: Annie Siddons

Director: Laura Keefe

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

In Euripides’s The Bacchae,Dionysius comes to town to wreak revenge on Pentheus, the coldly rational King of Thebes. In Annie Siddons’s take on this ancient Greek tragedy, Dionysius is reimagined as Dennis, Thebes as Penge, and Pentheus is the name of the local job centre. Dennis of Pengeis a modern tragedy about the battle against austerity.

After Gary Owen’s searing Iphigenia in Splott, it seems that the Greek plays have much to say about our current times. The Bacchae’s examination of the two sides of human nature, the analytic and the instinctive, seems ripe for reinterpretation. Written in verse by Siddons, the play follows the story of Wendy, who, overweight and in her 30s, has been neglected by the state and society. Unable to work, but deprived of benefits Wendy has come to the end of the road. Walking into a chicken shop to get what may be her last meal, she meets her old school friend Dennis. He says he can save her.

Siddons is joined on stage by Asaf Zohar and Jorell Coiffic-Kamall and together with a mixture of live and recorded music, they tell the story of how Wendy and Dennis fight the system, and its figurehead, jobcentre worker Neil, who in following the rules, loses his empathy. Siddons and Coiffic-Kamall speak most of the words here, and they rarely miss a beat ensuring that Siddons’s poetry shines. It’s funny and flash, but never flashy, and its rhymes (end rhymes, and internal rhymes) are clear but never intrusive. They are a formidable pair, and their partnership is slick. Zohar speaks less but is in charge of the music, which he has composed. Together they create a myth for modern times.

However, while the story is the thing here, it is often too broad and too many peripheral characters are introduced, taking attention away from our heroes, Wendy and Dennis. Penge’s other residents may bring some comedy to the tale, but in the end, we know relatively little about Wendy’s predicament and Dennis’s queer superpowers. In fact, we know more about Neil, a thinly disguised metaphor for the Tory Government, which has cut many people’s Disability Living Allowance in recent months.

All the performances are magnetic, especially that of Coiffic-Kamall, who brings a different swagger to each of his characters. But overall, at two hours, with an interval, this show could be shorter and tighter. This is a powerful piece, but its punch against cold-hearted bureaucracy could have a sharper aim.

Runs until 6 October 2018 | Image: Contributed

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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