Review: The Ungrateful Biped (White Bear Theatre)
Rupert Graves makes his directorial debut with this one-man adaptation of Dostoyevsky's 1864 novella
If your idea of a good time is being harangued non-stop for 75 minutes by the kind of unfunny, misanthropic jerk you'd cross the road to avoid, get yourself down to Kennington where this updated stage version of Dostoyevsky's novella Notes From Underground marks the directorial debut of actor Rupert Graves. Philip Goodhew is responsible for the adaptation and performs the solo script.
The unnamed central character is holed up in a sordid basement flat making a bilious, deranged video diary where he muses on the sheer bloody awfulness of, well, pretty much everything really. He is suffering from possible cirrhosis of the liver, chronic paranoia, crippling ennui... and a nasty cough.
"What does a civilised man drivel on about with most satisfaction? Himself" he soliloquises at the top of this punishing (for the audience, that is) monologue, later throwing in anecdotes such as the one when he viciously attacked an estranged, successful actor friend for no apparent reason, or when he cruelly humiliated a well-meaning prostitute. Looking suitably dishevelled, Goodhew portrays all this with a certain amount of relish, although his delivery seems limited to two gears – campy, supercilious languor or hysterical shouting – which gets pretty wearing.
The cliché-ridden script doesn't help: truly horrible characters can be riveting theatrical company when written with sufficient panache, humour and insight, but that is not the case here. While the central figure's rampant self-obsession may well be Goodhew and Dostoyevsky's point, he mainly comes across as tiresomely entitled and moany, given to endless self-pity – despite his assertions to the contrary – and witless recycling of quotes from other sources ("if I want sympathy, I'll find it in the dictionary between sh*t and syphilis"). It is never clear either in Goodhew's performance or Graves' pedestrian but mercifully brief staging why this loser is worth our time.
On the upside, Pablo Fernandez Baz's lighting is genuinely transporting and atmospheric. Ultimately though, this is a snarlingly nihilistic little show, but unlike the biped of the title, I was grateful: I was grateful to get out of the theatre. "I don't care" croons our nasty anti-hero into his screen at the play's conclusion. Yeah well, me neither.
The Ungrateful Biped runs at the White Bear Theatre until 17 February.