Steven Berkoff’s one-man show is a game of two halves showcasing his virtuosic talent for physical theatre. Without any set or props, he holds the audience’s attention throughout with his strong stage presence, using movement, mime and a wide range of vocal expression and sound effects to portray two violent sociopaths.
Tell Tale Heart is Berkoff’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic story about a man with “over-acuteness of the senses” who murders his neighbour because of his “vulture eye” – a sort of “Are you looking at me?” paranoid response taken to extremes. Standing in a circular pool of white light which later changes to blood-red (and occasionally half-ducking into the surrounding darkness), the protagonist becomes increasingly manic as he strives to assert his sanity.
Garbed in an ill-fitting, tie-less three-piece-suit, Berkoff’s red-eyed, sweaty unreliable narrator is a twitchy bundle of nerves and guilt. Though eminently watchable, this bravura performance would benefit from a bit more restraint. The grotesque side of this senseless murder is nicely captured, but the humour is overplayed at the expense of the horror, with the dismembering of the body played purely for laughs with plenty of crunching and squelching. Much more effective is the use of shoe tapping to indicate the throbbing heart beat which cannot be stilled.
Berkoff’s own monologue Dog, on the other hand, is a pure joy to watch in its gleefully comic account of brutal love. Brilliantly playing both an East End skinhead football hooligan and his pit-bull terrier Roy, Berkoff shows both the bestial qualities of man and the anthropomorphic aspects of an animal in this strangely symbiotic relationship.
Wearing DMs, cut-off jeans and (strangely) a 50 Cent shirt, Berkoff’s lager lout is a racist, misogynist white-van driver who treats his dog with a mixture of affection and abuse, which Roy returns with an equally aggressive loyalty. In this case, the dog is not just man’s best friend but probably his only friend, tied together by more than a lead. Expressed with boisterous energy, there is a shared intimacy and understanding between them which is ultimately touching.
In the past, Berkoff has performed One Man with Actor too, and, appetising as it is, this one-hour show could do with a third course. Though the showman sometimes overcomes the actor, it highlights what a uniquely entertaining performer Berkoff is.