by Michael Angerer
The self-described dark comedy You Are Frogs, put on by Practically Peter Productions, is above all a baffling play: perhaps the most baffling theatrical experience to come out of this term. Having ascended the steps up to the Burton Taylor studio, the unsuspecting playgoer intrudes into the depressingly bright-coloured kitchen of two frogs, Gary and Mabel; over the next 45 minutes, their strange domestic dynamic will then be disrupted by the arrival of Bill, a distressingly keen puppet. As we follow the rapid shifts between dismally superficial conversations, uncomfortably comical torments, the occasional almost hilarious frog pun, and brief episodes of madness, we come to ask ourselves: what is the meaning of this? And is meaning something such a play can support?
The viewer cannot help but feel that a vital element of the plot is missing in the face of the sheer absurdity of two humanoid frogs squabbling like an old couple, going into sudden fits of frenzy over unwatered flowers, porridge, or medication. Mabel (Tamsin Sandford Smith) is energetic but harried; Gary (Gemma Daubeney) lives a static life and is dangerously on the edge of mania: ‘I am an old boy, I am a sick man’. But a plot there must be: as the two co-dependent frogs’ existence is shaken up by the arrival of Bill (Gregor Roach), a metal puppet with some measure of optimism, we can discern a certain kind of progression. Indeed, the tension rises as Mable divides her ambiguous attentions between Gary and Bill; Bill’s enthusiasm, on the other hand, is hard put to survive his inclusion in this closed-off space of domestic madness: ‘Every day, I come home and we are all here.’ And the audience uncomfortably sits and watches this miniature non-drama unfold until its reaches its inevitable non-conclusion.
On balance, the play probably gains from being played on a small stage: certainly, it makes the characters’ sudden and incomprehensible actions much more effective; Gary’s sudden rolls, jumps, and manic grins, masterfully (if somewhat frighteningly) executed by Gemma Daubeney, tread a fine line between the absurdly comic and the otherworldly disturbing. The distance from the actors is perfectly appropriate to stare in amazement when Tamsin Sandford Smith’s Mabel suddenly erupts into avant-garde dancing or proudly proclaims the next frog pun – truly ‘ribbeting’ – convincingly enough to make it funny. And yet, we almost wish we could sit a little further away: the physical comedy and cheap jokes appear to rely on something else, something we feel we should be aware of; from the outside, there might be a perspective that allows us to see the whole and make sense of it all.
There is, however, no outside perspective we can take. Flora Faulk’s set very competently reproduces a well-worn but far too colourful kitchen (a picture wall, table and chairs, an ironing board), and as we all sit around it, the oppressive atmosphere of these frogs’ life engulfs the audience; the effect is enhanced by Leonard Maassen’s soft but persistent background music, with the occasional laugh track and increasingly unhinged interludes as the madness advances. In this space, the most incongruous thing of all seems almost natural: Olivia Campbell’s frog costumes, most conspicuous by the cap with the bulging eyes. Mabel, in a rare moment of reflection, takes off her frog cap: ‘I want a world where we can live freely – I feel inadequate’. But she is stuck with the frog shape – and so are we.
All in all, the question remains: does this make sense? And should it? There is so much here that can easily be taken to refer to a deeper meaning, and so much that clearly does not. Director Joel Stanley has shaped a play that, in the finest tradition of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, is certainly a comedy – the audience’s own additions to the laugh track bear testimony – and probably dark: we simply wish we knew wherein exactly the darkness lies. If only we could catch a glimpse at the reasoning that hides behind random movements, cheap jokes, and flabbergasting frog costumes; but You Are Frogs is a little too absurd for that. We laugh and are baffled; but we also feel inadequate.
You Are Frogs runs till Saturday 9 March at 9.30pm at the Burton Taylor Studio.