Review: David Shrigley's Problem in Brighton (Old Market, Brighton)

David Shrigley presents the main Brighton Festival commission for 2018

Problem in Brighton
Problem in Brighton
© Victor Frankowski

The centrepiece of David Shrigley's Brighton Festival guest directorship is less the billed "pop pantomime" than a post-punk scrapbook. Which really shouldn't come as a surprise. The artist is known for his deadpan cartoons – dark, quick-witted and speedily executed drawings about the absurdity of the human condition that retain the naive lines and crossed-out words of a draft.

So it's perfectly in character for Shrigley to have approached both his new book, Fully Coherent Plan: For a New and Better Society, and this new stage show, as works in progress. "We'll figure out what the book's about once it's published," he recently explained, "and when people have seen the performance I'll figure out what it's about afterwards".

Nevertheless, Problem in Brighton feels undercooked for a main Brighton Festival commission. Shrigley regularly collaborates with musicians. But his first foray into stage directing arrives, seemingly rather unwittingly, at the mainstream end of a five-year rise in 'gig theatre': informally staged shows with the energy and grit of a gig and the added narrative context of a play.

Co-written by Lee Baker, it features a dynamic and well-drilled seven-piece band in uniform black, playing compellingly stark and driving new wave. But the female vocalist is Scottish actor Pauline Knowles and the male vocalist is Stephen Kreiss of physical comedy company Spymonkey. The specially-designed guitars are like caricatures of rock instruments, featuring misplaced frets and the wrong number of strings. There are two maracas shaped like giant fists. There is a guitar you play by banging it against your head.

The vibe, consequently, is kind of '70s downtown NYC crossed with Vic and Bob's Big Night Out. Or, as a shorthand: art school. The overarching joke is the contrast between the super-seriousness of the band and the absurdity of the content. With dark urgency, they launch, in unison, into an opening salvo of "Hey, you with the spade". Soon Knowles is intoning a long list of footwear while Kreiss dances with (as opposed to in) his socks. As if in acknowledgement that this may be too much non-sequituring for some, the drumhead doesn't bear the name of The Problem Band, but gives notice of the show length: "Duration 61 minutes".

Shrigley's signature isn't just in the instruments, the lyrics, the black and white colour scheme. Some songs are accompanied by projections of his artwork: a pastiche of the national anthem, thwacked out on ever slacker strings, goes with an animation of the Queen trying to maintain composure as a bug runs into her nostrils. But the projections are piecemeal rather than providing a unifying thread.

It is only really in the final number, as the band file out one-by-one singing "One String is All You Need", that you feel a strong directorial vision. There is, you realise, a meaningful aesthetic sympathy between the one-stringed guitars and Shrigley's line drawings. Suddenly all the sardonic nihilism resolves into a simple, hopeful love song. It's powerful and moving. Otherwise, from the track about eating foreign meat sung to the tune of Johnny Todd, to the Kreiss-led anti-anthem "Mother, You Can't Be in the Band", this is an exercise in comic bathos that may frustrate as much as it delights.