Cuckoo! Embrace nonsense! Bright Young Things brings us The Bald Soprano, a Fringe review

By Liz Nicholls,

The Bald Soprano (Stage 12, Varscona Theatre)

Give your mental synapses a warm-up rattle, pry your sense of causality loose from its moorings. Get those sticky fingers of language off meaning, and free-associate like there’s no tomorrow, since tomorrow never comes. Ionesco, the Romanian-French master of the theatre of the absurd, is back at the Fringe.

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And it’s with his influential first play (he called it an “anti-play”), his landmark 1950 comedy The Bald Soprano, the world record-holder for most continuous performances in the same Paris theatre (since 1957). Bright Young Things, the indie company that has brought us revivals of Coward, Stoppard, Rattigan, yes even Sartre and other stars of the last mid-century, embraces its dizzying architecture of inanity and nonsense in a manically captivating production directed by Dave Horak.

“We’ve eaten well this evening,” says Mrs. Smith (Belinda Cornish) brightly to Mr. Smith (John Ullyatt) at the outset of Ionesco’s take on the very English domestic comedy. “That’s because we live in the suburbs of London, and because our name is Smith.” Mr. Smith, reading the newspaper, clicks his tongue. A cuckoo clock goes off randomly.

The Smiths are serious people. Which is why they’re funny, as Horak’s actors understand perfectly; Cornish and Ullyatt play with extravagant  cartoon precision. Mr. Smith announces that  conscientious doctors should die with their patients. What ensues is a detailed discussion of a couple who, along with their children, are all named Bobby Watson.

Another couple, the daffy Martins (the excellent team of Mat Busby and Rachel Bowron), arrive for dinner, which never, incidentally, gets served. Once across the Smith threshold they don’t recognize each other and start the process of discovery until they realize they’re married. “Darling, let’s forget all that has not passed between us….”

The banter is free-floating; apparently, the inspiration was the phrase books Ionesco used when he was learning English. “Yogurt is excellent for the stomach, the kidneys, appendicitis and apotheosis.”

The disconnections continue with the appearance of a hilariously saucy maid (Shannon Blanchet), and the arrival of a fireman (Chris Pereira), even though there isn’t a fire right now but there could be at some undetermined future point. He stays to tell stories because “firemen’s stories are always true,” and, it turns out, he’s the maid’s lover. I’m going to step out and call the sex scene the funniest at the Fringe. Prove me wrong, people.

It’s a bright, crisp production. And it makes of The Bald Soprano, the precursor to the Pythons, Albee, Stoppard and the rest, a veritable seminar in making nonsense a fine art. The non-sequiturs fly. The assumption that language is a means of communication explodes in a giddy shower of small-talk and fractured logic. Experience tells us that if the doorbell rings repeatedly and no one is there, naturally it means that the doorbell rings because there’s no one ever there.

As the Martins say about their discovery that they have the same address and sleep in the same bed, “ how curious it, how bizarre, and what a coincidence!” 

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