“The offbeat ideas just roll gloriously on”
According to their website, Theatre Paradok aim to be “experimental without being exclusive” – and if Banknote is anything to go by, they’ve got that brief comprehensively nailed. In the space of 90 minutes, their eminently experimental play anthropomorphises the Bank of Scotland £1 note, imagining it as – what else? – a Victorian-era burlesque star. The eponymous banknote’s key virtues (like being trustworthy, or difficult to copy) are exhibited in a series of broadly-comic vignettes; and those vignettes lampoon distinctly non-Victorian cultural phenomena, ranging from The Proclaimers to ‘Blind Date’. This is every bit as perplexing as it sounds.
But Paradok get away with such a bizarre concept, because their pecuniary antics are laugh-out-loud funny almost the whole way through. Star of the show is Euan Dickson, who plays compere to most of the set-pieces and brings just the right level of pantomime exaggeration to his role. The gaggle of “burlesque dancers” aren’t quite as burlesque as they want to be, but they successfully develop rounded individual characters and perform with genuine skill. And there’s a welcome change of pace from a compelling performance poet, despite the fact that his appearance ended in what may or may not have been scripted confusion.
There are sharper moments – at one point a dippy, put-upon dancer casually reveals a far more intelligent side – but in the main, the offbeat ideas just roll gloriously on. As is mandatory in experimental theatre, the cast drop out of character to conduct an artistic quarrel. There’s a well-timed intervention from a bare-chested man in boxing gloves (who’s spent three-quarters of the play standing at the back of the room doing absolutely nothing at all). And it all ends with the most cheerfully tuneless song-and-dance number you’ll ever have heard – which still contrived, through sheer chutzpah and charisma, to get the whole audience happily chanting along.
What’s missing, though, is an overall sense of coherence. While there is a narrative thread running through the set-pieces, it isn’t strong enough to stitch them together, leaving the work as a whole with an episodic and juddering feel. For a minute or two after the interval, there’s a glimpse of the anchoring theme this play so badly needed; the obsessive chemist Alexander Crum Brown takes centre stage, describing his quest to develop the “impossible” perfect banknote. But that promising insight is passed over in a moment, lost among a flurry of over-complex allegory and wilfully-anachronistic humour.
In short, Theatre Paradok’s experiment has bubbled somewhat out of control. Never mind though; it was hugely enjoyable to watch, and I’m sure it was just as much fun to perform in. Student theatre’s allowed to be freewheeling – they have the rest of their lives to rein their imagination in.
Reviewer:Richard Stamp (Seen 28 March)
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