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Trafalgar Studios, London

Andrew Haydon
posted 17 July 2007

This is the first time I have visited Trafalgar Studio One. It is also the first time I have seen Simon Bent’s adaptation for stage of Ingvar Ambjørnson’s novel-turned-film, Elling. Given the rave notices it attracted when it first opened at the Bush - frustrating, since the run sold out before it had opened - I can’t help feeling I missed out slightly. A good Bush opening night is a pretty special experience - you’re crammed into a tiny room with an improbably large number of others, all stuffed in elbow to elbow - shared assent in such a confined space tends to intensify reaction several-fold. In the roomier environs of Whitehall it is much harder to feel the same sense of a collective experience.

However, there is still much to enjoy in this likeable tale of two inmates of a Norwegian mental hospital, turned out into the outside world and given an apartment on the understanding that they ‘become normal’. Leaving aside this questionable technique for treating mental illness, this is classic odd-couple stuff; Elling (John Simm), a prim, fussy-looking, uptight, agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive, anal retentive with a borderline oedipal complex for his dead mother, is surprised to find himself sharing a room with the ‘orang-utan’ Kjell Bjarne (Adrian Bower), a hulking, sex-obsessed virgin, who wants nothing more than to eat hot dogs and ‘screw chicks’. Over the course of the play we see the two negotiate their way with each other and the wider world, portrayed with a surprising degree of tenderness and a collection of moments at which the audience goes ‘aww’ en masse.

It is plain that the piece is adapted from a novel. The conversion works in large measure, but the actual shape of the story is quite unexpected. It isn’t usually noticeable, but most plays share a particularly shaped trajectory. Elling’s structure is far more leisurely, offering scenes which would be dramaturged to death if presented as a first-draft for theatre. Although outwardly naturalistic, overall this is more akin to a fairy tale for grown-ups. The portrayal of the characters’ mental illnesses, the tricks of fate and the way in which events unfold, all point to a pretty cavalier disregard for realism in favour of something, well, nicer.

Of course, the big story is that much-loved actor John Simm is appearing on stage for the first time since he left drama school. Simm has starred in some of the best of recent TV drama, including the recent time-travel cop show extravaganza Life on Mars. This has the unfortunate side effect, given he is playing someone with a mental illness, that the intro from Life on Mars periodically springs to mind: ‘Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?’ Well, you’re mad. Simm’s performance is hugely watchable, if somehow off-kilter. Given his character’s myriad particular personality ticks, much of this strangeness can be accounted for by simple characterisation, but there is still something about his performance which seems to date from an earlier era, most reminiscent of Kenneth Williams offering one of his rare ‘straight’ roles.

I should finally record that the night I saw the show (and not on a papered press night), a vast majority of the audience were on their feet within moments of the final lines offering the most enthusiastic, spontaneous standing ovation I have seen in a theatre for quite some time.

Till 6 October 2007

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