There is a little gem of a performance in London right now from John Simm as the fastidious, fussing mother’s boy in Elling, newly transferred from the Bush to the more expansive main house of the Trafalgar Studios.
Paul Miller’s bright and breezy production retains the same cast: Adrian Bower as Elling’s looming, chick-crazed partner in their emergence from state institution to “normal” life in Oslo; Ingrid Lacey as their catalytic nurse and pregnant neighbour; Keir Charles as the social worker; and Jonathan Cecil, more at ease now, less nerve-wracking, as the ageing poet.
I still find the play – adapted by Simon Bent from a cult Norwegian film - essentially joyless and less than fall-over funny. But Simm creates an authentic comic archetype with his neat steps and blank, mole-like expression, clutching his suitcase like a comfort rag, dispensing opinions with a tentative finality, his recurring oratorical backward hand gesture evaporating in a harmless wave.
Simm has ratcheted up his performance a notch or two to fill the space, and he does this with expert technical finesse. And it is clear that his fans from Life on Mars are very happy seeing him display a more delicate side in his acting nature.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from April 2007 and this production’s original run at the Bush Theatre.
A Norwegian comedy might sound like a contradiction in terms. A Norwegian comedy in which two asylum inmates are released on a “normalisation” programme in the outside world – they exchange underpants and attend poetry readings – sounds more like an especially pointless Monty Python sketch.
And this is the trouble with Simon Bent’s new version of a cult Norwegian film (based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjornson). It is a surprise, and it is a sporadically funny one. But it’s not the sort of play you can trust, because it has no moral anchor and no real joy; you feel that the author is only funny because he has no sense of humour.
What the play does have is a beautifully controlled production by Paul Miller on a primary-coloured set of blue and yellow walls designed by Simon Daw, and a brilliantly detailed and simultaneously stripped down performance by John Simm in the title role, proving that there is life on the stage after two triumphant series of Life on Mars on the television.
Simm’s Elling is a little fusspot of a mummy’s boy who emerges from a cupboard in his pyjamas like a mole pushing through a hole into the daylight. His self-sufficiency is based on a complete ignorance of what he needs to get by. “Mother did all the shopping,” he announces proudly, “I did the ideology.” Elling is a Napoleon of nothingness, a victor in vacancy, a master of mediocrity.
He shares the room with Adrian Bower’s large and hairy Kjell Bjarne, a clumsy and uncouth virginal orang-utan with serious chick fantasies. Under the supervision of Keir Charles’ indulgent social worker, they take an apartment in Oslo together. They make phone calls. They go to cafes. They learn how to hang loose. They will survive, though not perhaps with the noisy flourish of Gloria Gaynor.
Elling finds himself acclaimed as a minor national figure, a mystery poet who stuffs his scribbles into Sauerkraut packets in supermarkets. Kjell Bjarne falls in love with a pregnant lady, Reidun, who comes home to the apartment upstairs ruinously drunk on Christmas Eve. A satire of the Christmas spirit is intended here, with a troubled pregnancy in the manger and the two friends exchanging presents - the myrrh the merrier, no doubt - of a matchstick model of the apartment block and one of those pens with a poster girl who strips with the ink flow.
Everything slows down a bit, despite the jaunty, slightly alarming interventions of Jonathan Cecil as a kindly old poet and the charming virtuosity of Ingrid Lacey as Reidun as well as a nurse, a waitress and an over-intense beatnik.
Simm glues the evening together as this cold climate Mr Bean with his pork pie hat, buttoned-up raincoat and picky, pokey little fingers. It turns out the odd couple are normal after all, but the play never really explains why the relationship disintegrates the minute each of them tastes a morsel of fulfilment. Perhaps that is the point: friendship is based in need. No way to treat a lady, even in Norway.
- Michael Coveney