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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007

  Tomas Pape
Underbelly, Edinburgh

Shaun Hadnett
posted 28 August 2007

Tomas Pape, written and directed by Martin Bonger, is an unsettling play that deals with themes of childhood suffering and memory using allusions to popular culture as diverse as South Park and fairytales.

A circus troupe, ‘Reverie Pieto’ enter from the back of the auditorium playing acoustic guitar, snare drum, clarinet and harmonica. Ringmaster of this travelling show, Seymour (Richard Keiss) accompanies the entrance of his minstrels saying, ‘This embrace will shroud you in water overleaping the familiar.’ Clumsy wordplay, but the music and vocal harmonies are subtle and haunting.

Before the audience can ask itself what this all means, Tomas Pape, (played by Terry Craven although other actors become Tomas later on) is introduced by Camille (Cath Johnson) as someone who ‘learned to find solace from his beating as a boy.’ Sadness or shock have little time to register as Kennedy (Elizabeth Jones) comes to the front of the stage looking like a human amalgam of Kyle and Kenny from South Park. Kennedy waves her hat around telling us it is the circus freak. As the play unfolds, hats are swapped and changed to surprisingly sinister effect.

The theme of Tomas and his elusive childhood story emerges as the play progresses. The other characters prompt him to recall his past but we learn little more than that he was born in Bucharest and is ten years old. Interspersed with this questioning, Seymour’s performers execute sub-standard tricks while the ringmaster himself stalks and talks on stage in an increasingly seedy manner. Much of this is quite funny, yet the troubled faces of Tomas and Camille during the bungled juggling and fire-eating ensures an uneasy atmosphere. How bad were Tomas’s early years, and do we really need to know?

The play then takes a clever twist as Tomas unearths two memories that lampoon the idea of regressive therapy. A placid memory of trees and a train journey followed by odd musings on sheep at a market place cause the audience to chuckle, perhaps with relief, that a worse voyeurism into child cruelty has been avoided.

But the idea of childhood memories persists. Aware that their circus is a flop, the other characters push Tomas once more into delving back through time, reasoning that a tearjerking story may boost the troupe’s fortunes. A typewriter is held aloft by Camille and passed to Georges (Rachel Waters) who is exhorted to write. Tomas plays mournful harmonica and the other characters sing eerie Gregorian-style harmonies as Georges constructs a script of sadness. Kennedy flourishes the finished story as the music reaches a crescendo. Tomas, sidelined, now comes centre stage shouting, ‘That is not yours to tell.’ Seymour, not wanting the main character to get in the way of his own story, banishes Tomas with the words, ‘You are lost to me. You are cast out. Run Tom you stupid clown.’

By this point in the action the play has taken on the lustre of fairytales like ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Yet the modern co-exists with the rustic onstage. An electric guitar-led rock song accompanies Tomas as he runs around the auditorium. Tomas encounters different groups while on the run. A group of girl scouts, with Richard Kiess’s Seymour morphing into a camp leader announces delightedly to the runaway hero that they are all wearing their Tomas Pape badges. Another scene has characters donning orange balaclavas while they throw a ball to Tomas exclaiming they have never had such fun before. This sarcastic take on childhood deprivation is at once disturbing and humorous. Tomas’s hat is swapped amongst the other characters as if they can all somehow share his fate.

Whether deliberate or not these dramatic devices mirror the real-life Madeleine McCann campaign of posters and supposed sightings. The disconcerting tone of the play continues when Tomas dangles a microphone above a tape recorder which is playing a child’s narration of one of his earlier memories. And with that the play ends as the cast troops off reprising the opening song, but with a different voiceover from Seymour, ‘It is our conclusion this is not…quite…right/ Something inside will come and tease the mind.’ Some of the audience are still humming the affecting melody when the cast have departed. Tomas Pape balances hints of childhood suffering with a criticism of society’s desire to dwell on such things. As Tomas says towards the end of the play, ‘Memories have altered but something remains, like the first layer of a painting.’


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