That’s not to say that this is all doom and gloom – far from it. If Horrible Histories ever did Brecht, then this would surely be the result. Grotesque and wildly comic characters all vie for space and vividly tell the play within the play, and with the addition of some fine musical moments, this is a robustly modern approach to Brechtian storytelling that will appeal to a younger audience as well as those looking for a fresh take on the classic.
As revolution takes hold of Grusinia, the Governor’s wife abandons her baby in order to save her own neck. Servant girl Grusha takes the child and raises him as her own as she flees the fighting. When the war is over and the Governor’s wife returns and wants her child back, it is down to the corrupt judge Azdak to decide who should keep the infant. It takes some time to get there but this is when the chalk circle of the title comes into play.
Waters plays fast and loose with the material and it is all the better for it. “Mighty Trumps” are given a dual meaning whilst non-doms and oligarchs all get a mention also. Christopher Haydon directs with the subtlety of a Carry On film and cranks up the villains to panto levels, complete with ridiculous false beards and even a cream pie in the face at one point.
Despite the levity with which the material is treated, the night is overlong at nearly three hours. The second act in particular loses momentum as the focus shifts to the judge’s mock trials and back story. Jonathan Slinger brilliantly commands the stage as Azdak, oozing corruption but somehow digging deep and finding his moral compass just in time – it’s a fierce performance but it does become hard work.
Carrie Hope Fletcher holds her own as an unsentimental Grusha. She contends well with some of Haydon’s clunkier directorial choices – there’s a lot of running on the spot – and brings Michael Henry’s score to life with some beautifully done musical moments.
Narrator – and sometimes Brechtian actor – Zoe West is simply called, The Singer. West keeps things rattling along with her guitar accompaniment and breaks the fourth wall with a nicely paced ease. The rest of the nine-strong company each cover multiple roles with some 50 characters shared between them. They too, provide musical substance with plenty of superb acapella singing that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Pitch Perfect movie.
It’s a riotous production that finds more fun than one normally expects from the German playwright. An irreverence to the material leads to an unnecessary littering of course language – but otherwise this is digestible Brecht that will no doubt appeal to the legions of Fletcher fans that I’m sure will be flocking to the Rose.