Anthony Neilson’s spuriously delightful, slightly weird evening of Victorian mystery and magic in a travelling freak show was first seen at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth seven years ago. If it didn’t cross your radar then (as it didn’t mine), this co-production by Headlong and the Nuffield, Southampton, is an almost necessary treat.
The eponymous impresario welcomes us to his strange universe where freakish occurrences are the symptoms of human unhappiness. Gant himself is a bizarre emcee, projected with a leer, a swirl of his cape and a glittering eye by Simon Kunz, and his stories are enacted by the upright, slightly dazed Sam Cox as Jack Dearlove, the face-pulling Emma Handy as clucking Madame Poulet, and the powerfully resentful Paul Barnhill as the disillusioned Nicholas Ludd.
The travelling show is on the skids, but not before we have the full flourish of footlights and plush curtains, one-dimensional scenery, spooky stories, strange effects and a mutiny on the stage when actors dress up in bearskins and turn hostile as Gant tries to stop the wheels falling off in a last ditch impersonation of the line-hogging Phantom of the Dry.
Neilson is testing his own partiality for the weird and wonderful against a traditional setting, and the result is an unusually rich and lip-smacking relish in old-style magic and mystery. How odd, for instance, is the Italian girl covered in facial pustules that, when squeezed, yield precious pearls; or the bereaved lover who allows a fake fakir to drill his head and stop it up with a piece of burnt cork?
Steve Marmion’s production, beautifully designed by Tom Scutt and cunningly lit by Malcolm Rippeth, is full of bravura and unusual visual gags, not to mention the bizarre, slightly repellent spurts of blood and pus decorating the stage and soldierly heroism at the Charge of the Light Brigade, survived some years earlier by Gant and Dearlove.
The show is an unexpected treat in itself but also an invaluable reminder of Neilson’s increasingly impressive back catalogue.