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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 2nd April 2004

Festen / The Dark / Hurricane

The Spectator - 2nd April 2004

At last, a good play! Festen, a stage adaptation of the Danish film of the same name, is among the two or three best things I've seen this year. So far, every performance has ended up selling out on the night, so you'd be well advised to book now. It's only running until May 1.

I have to confess, I was a little nervous beforehand due to the film's very distinctive style. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg in 1998, it subscribes to the principles set out in the Dogme manifesto, including use of handheld cameras, natural light, everyday locations, and so on. The Dogme movement was an attempt by a group of Scandinavian filmmakers to return to a more pared-down, naturalistic style of filmmaking in contrast to the excesses of contemporary Hollywood. The movement faltered after a few years, but several excellent films came out of it, including The Idiots, Mifune and Italian For Beginners. Festen is the out-and-out masterpiece of the genre.

I was worried about whether the Dogme style could work successfully on stage, but if this play is anything to go by the answer is yes. Filmmakers like Thomas Vinterberg hoped that, by avoiding the trappings of big-budget, Hollywood movies, they'd be forced to fall back on fundamental dramatic principles and the upshot is that Festen works very well as a classic, three-act play.

The action unfolds over a 48-hour period in a grand country house at which various people have assembled to celebrate a Danish patriarch's 70th birthday. The inciting incident occurs when one of his sons, played by Jonny Lee Miller, rises to make a toast on the first night and accuses him of sexual abuse. A father-son conflict then ensues.

Don't be put off by the inflammatory subject matter. For a Scandinavian play about incest, Festen is remarkably easy going. It constantly switches back and forth between low comedy and high drama, prompting a belly laugh one minute and a sharp intake of breath the next. The performances are almost all excellent, with the standouts being Sam Cox, Tom Hardy, Lisa Palfrey and, towering above them all, Robert Pugh as the tyrant-head of the family. This is a thoroughly engrossing play put together by a group of people--principally, Thomas Vinterberg and his English collaborator, David Eldridge--who've completely mastered the art of storytelling.

The Dark, the new play by Charlotte Jones, is less successful. I adored Jones's last play, Humble Boy, and went and saw it twice, but I think once is enough for this one. Set in a terraced street in an unnamed city, The Dark tells the story of three families who live next door to each other, each unhappy in their own particular way. There's a palpable sense of menace throughout and, when the entire street is plunged into darkness due to a power cut, I expected a full-blown blood bath. Instead, the three families are united in adversity and the play ends on a surprisingly hopeful note.

The theme of The Dark, as its title implies, is depression. This is a very fashionable subject at the moment, but nearly everything I've seen or read that deals with it has left me cold. I'm sure if I suffered from this affliction myself I'd be able to identify with the morose characters in The Dark, but given that I don't I just find their behaviour--or, rather, their inactivity--slightly baffling. In other words, their predicament isn't sufficiently universal for non-sufferers like me to relate to. I'm afraid that, by the end of the play, I fell into the stop-whinging-and-pull-your-socks-up camp.

Alex Higgins's self-destructive alcoholism, by contrast, which is the subject of Hurricane, is something I can identify with all too easily. Richard Dormer's one-man show was the hit of last year's Edinburgh Festival and, after a brief run at the Soho, it has finally found a berth in the West End. If Festen is among the two or three best things I've seen this year, then Hurricane is undoubtedly the best.

When Dormer makes his entrance, he's Higgins in the present, a broken-down old drunk, barely able to scrape enough money together to pay his bar bill. Within five minutes, though, a magical transformation takes place. Dormer throws off his trench coat, picks up a snooker cue and, suddenly, he's the Hurricane. This moment, enlivened by the sound of Marc Bolan belting out one of his greatest hits, lifts the entire theatre in a great woosh of energy. The next 55 minutes fly by as Dormer rattles through Higgins's career and the whole experience leaves you giddy with joy.

I could go on at length about why Hurricane is the best play on in the West End at the moment. It's meticulously well-researched. It's about a genuine working class hero rather than an imaginary one. It's the onIy British play I've ever seen about sport. Above all, Dormer himself is an absolute knock out. This is a star-making performance if I ever saw one. For 60 minutes Richard Dormer IS Alex Higgins, but I'm sure he'd be equally convincing as almost anyone else.

That's it from me for the time being. From now on, Rachel Halliburton will be alternating with Lloyd Evans. I'm off to Los Angeles to research and write a novel. But as the Governor of the great state of California once said, I'll be back.

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Twitter RT @JillianKayM: At Colby College, a student was reported to the Bias Response Team for abilism after using the phrase "on the other hand."  (26 minutes ago)


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