Notes from Underground (The Print Room at the Coronet)

‘An intensely claustrophobic experience that demands your attention’

One of London's most enterprising fringe venues, The Print Room, has moved into a permanent new home in Notting Hill, the beautiful but faded Coronet cinema, itself originally a Victorian playhouse. While the process of renovation and redevelopment gets under way, its first season in a temporary black box studio opens with an adaptation of the suitably dark and subterranean Fyodor Dostoyevsky novella Notes from Underground. First staged in Paris earlier this year, this 70-minute monologue adapted by Gerald Garutti and Harry Lloyd, directed by Garutti and starring Lloyd, is an intensely claustrophobic experience that demands your attention.

Harry Lloyd in Notes from the Underground
Harry Lloyd in Notes from the Underground

Notes from Underground lends itself naturally to theatre in the way its first person unreliable narrator addresses an imaginary audience to explain his warped philosophy of life with a highly distinctive voice. Unnamed, this self-confessed 'nobody' has dropped out of his career as a lowly civil servant to live on a small private inheritance 'underground' where he spits out his contempt for mainstream society and his resentment at how it has mistreated him.

Whereas Dostoyevsky divided his novella into two parts, the first based on intellectual theory, the second an account of the autobiographical experiences that led to the anti-hero's self-imposed isolation, this modern adaptation successfully merges them to produce a desperately personal expression of existential ennui.

Of course, with a one-man show the pressure is all on the performer, and Lloyd delivers. Smiling manically and gesturing twitchily at members of the audience as they enter, then eyeballing them obsessively when he starts to unburden himself, he gives a convincing portrait of a self-contradictory, hyper-conscious man who hates to be ignored but who is incapable of sustaining any relationships, alternately needy and 'spiteful', condescending and envious. As well as his edgy paranoia and self-loathing, Lloyd also brings out the darkly absurd humour of his two-year stalking of an 'executive man' for an imagined slight, his ineffectual attempts at revenge on old schoolfriends and his strange encounter with a prostitute. With unkempt hair, threadbare clothes and a homemade arm sling, Lloyd presents a sociopath who seems to get a masochistic pleasure out of self-destruction.

The performance is tightly helmed by Garutti, also responsible for the design featuring hardback books covering the stage backed by a collage of presumably unsent handwritten letters, while there are telling contributions from Bertrand Couderc's lighting and Bernard Valléry's sound. A disturbingly in your face portrayal of psychological breakdown, this show makes a compelling start to The Print Room's next phase of existence.