The strength of A Foreign Country lies in the talent and enthusiasm of a versatile cast, well marshalled as a team by director Richard Avery. Its weakness lies in the rather ad hoc nature of Avery’s script, indicated by the absence of one character/performer listed in the programme – whilst it’s admirable to survive a drop out in an understudy-free situation and still entertain the people, it does suggest a sort of “let’s put on what we’ve got” mentality.
The “foreign country” in question is the past, as in L.P. Hartley’s memorable observation. Tobias Bielby, an acerbic and influential drama critic who began his career in Hull, has no wish to join New Year’s Eve festivities in the nursing home where he is terminally ill. A Harlequin figure (the nurse’s boy friend, we are led to believe) brings in a troupe of clowns to entertain him with memories of his lifetime built around sketches of East Riding characters he did in his time as a journalist in Hull.
The result is a strange mix of “This is Your Life, Tobias Bielby”, genuine oral history based on interviews with real people and a potted history of the nation from 1950 to 1980, marked out with impressions and popular songs. It’s virtually impossible to work out what Tom Lehrer’s great survivalist hymn, “We’ll all go together when we go”, has to do with the East Riding, Tobias Bielby or changing Britain, but Danny Bradley gets every whimsical inflection of the mathematician-satirist for the high point of the evening – he does a pretty good Don McLean, too!
Neil King (Tobias) and Mike Burton (Harlequin) link the disparate elements well, King nicely precise as he thaws slowly from his aloof misanthropy, Burton clearly resolved to forget his unfortunate costume and his early fusillade of bad jokes and mount an energetic charm offensive. The five clowns work extremely well as an ensemble, a bit inclined at first to overly enthusiastic mugging, but all playing to their strengths, whether in gritty monologues of life in the 1950s or appealing versions of popular songs of the day.
Other Lives do great work in taking somewhat offbeat theatre (Godot last year, now this) to the villages of East Yorkshire and anyone happy to accept a lack of focus in the script will find much to enjoy in A Foreign Country as it travels through one-night stands at half a dozen village halls before settling in to the Hull Truck Studio from 25 – 28 April.