Kafka's Dick at the Piccadilly Theatre
Wheezing and spluttering, the tuberculous Franz Kafka (John Gordon-Sinclair) somewhat half-heartedly begs his friend Max Brod to burn his collected oeuvre after his death. A few seconds later, we're transported to the present day and to a suburban living room where bored housewife Linda (Julia Mackenzie) bickers with her insurance-selling, Kafka-loving husband Sidney (Denis Lill) and his senile father (Eric Sykes). Events take a turn for the surreal - Max gets caught short on the doorstep and on an unfortunate passing tortoise. The latter is abruptly metamorphosed - spot the allusion - into Kafka, who has no idea that his dying wishes were disobeyed and that he is now one of the leading figures in twentieth century literature.
Mackenzie turns in a magnificently funny performance, maximising the comic potential of the avocado in a totally unprecedented fashion and delivering the immortal line - 'When did you first get the writing bug?' - to Kafka with unimpeachable timing. Syke's bumbling old duffer in fear of the social services is a hoot too: he wields his Zimmer frame with Chaplinesque aplomb, eliciting spontaneous applause from the audience every time he leaves the stage. Gordon-Sinclair's wry delivery and gangly presence is just right for the role, and his diffident, depressive Kafka is spot on.
If there is one duff note in Peter Hall's production, it has to be the weird melange of accents: Jason Watkins' Brod overdoes the Middle-European Semitic and slips into kebab-house Greek, Gordon Sinclair sticks with Scots and James Belcher as Kafka's thoroughly evil father wavers between the two. But apart from that, the production is hard to fault.
At one level, the play questions the ability of biographers ever to capture the true essence of their subject; at another, the impact of the dysfunctional family on the creative process; at yet another, it explores the complex relationship of a couple who have grown apart. But where this production excels is at the surface level of pure comedy. Alan Bennett's humour swerves from Wildean quips through screaming puns to his trademark witty observations of human absurdity.
If you've never read Kafka, don't worry. It won't spoil your enjoyment of this play as, in spite of the title, it's neither intellectually highbrow nor embarrassingly rude. The literary references are explained, the eponymous organ merely alluded to, never seen.
There's no dearth of big productions in London at the moment but Kafka's Dick is massive.