Writer: B. S. Johnson
Director: Carla Kingham
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Before his death in 1973 at the age of 40, B. S. Johnson had written several novels, plays and TV films, often with a Beckettian eye for the surreal. The Finborough’s new trilogy of three of his short works serves as an interesting introduction to his work, albeit with a sometimes frustrating lack of clarity.
Not Counting the Savages started life as a BBC play, and receives its stage premiere here. At first glance, it is the most conventional piece of the Finborough’s trilogy, as Sarah Berger’s unnamed wife relates how a man exposed himself to her as she was tending her dead son’s grave.
Director Carla Kingham extracts a piquant performance from Berger in these opening moments, her rage at husband Brian Deacon’s indifference to her experience bubbling under the surface. As the couple’s other children return home, their varying reactions further expose and exacerbate the fractures in their parents’ marriage.
There are clues within Johnson’s dialogue of some other things going on beneath the surface, and that the setting may be behind the Iron Curtain in a Soviet-controlled country. Maybe to delve too deeply is to risk ascribing an incorrect motive to Johnson’s work; on the other hand, there are hints of themes unexplored by such a bare staging as this.
More surreal, and feeling all the more contemporary for it, is Down Red Lane, in which an obese gourmand (Reginald Edwards) finds his own belly, personified by a bellicose Alex Griffin-Griffiths, rebelling against his over-indulgence. It’s a scenario that predates, and may have influenced, Monty Python’s Mr Creosote in The Meaning of Life. Kingham elicits performances, especially from Griffin-Griffiths, which start out angry and have nowhere else to go as the scene progresses, which dents some of the comic playlet’s power. That aside, forty years on Johnson’s writing feels fresh and relevant.
Rounding off the trilogy is the title piece, You’re Human Like the Rest of Them. Three scenes, through which moves young teacher Haakon (Bertie Taylor-Smith), discuss the frailty of the human condition – starting with a university lecture about the fragility of the spine, and the importance of keeping the back straight and legs bent when lifting. As Haakon returns to the work staff room, he is sexually suggestive towards a colleague, and accused of spinelessness by another; later, in his classroom, he strives to lecture his pupils in the sense of mortality he is feeling.
Johnson directed the TV film version of this, using the advantages of the visual medium to inject subliminal flash-frame images and other imagery to complement Haakon’s increasing obsession. With no such material available here – with this piece playing out on the set of the Finborough’s main show, I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, the only props Kingham and designer Rüte Irbite are able to introduce are some abstract blocks – there is little to flesh out Taylor-Smith’s performance beyond a sense of stridency.
From the evidence of these three pieces, Johnson’s work is due a revival. Whether there is meat on the bones on display here may require further productions to fully explore his concepts and ideas.
Runs: Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21 March 2017 | Image: Mathew Foster