revew: People Zoo – Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness
Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness/
by Anthony Neilson/
dir Evelyn Roberts/
Hope Mill Theatre/
I’ve been reassessing what I value recently. I like to think that’s an ongoing project in myself but I also operate and live my life with a fear that one day I will find myself old and stuck in ways which I’d never thought needed addressing or thinking about. Some kind of vessel for oppression. Hm.
I’ve been considering the standards I have inherited, and who set them. It’s easy to pretend I am outside of time and history but I am not.
Anthony Neilson’s Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness is a weird script. A vaudevillian troupe fronted by the eponymous Gant, who promises to deliver fantastical tales of emotional depravity. The first two of these feel largely like elongated comedy sketches. The comparison to The Mighty Boosh is understandable. The Mighty Boosh have their roots in the kind of mid-20th century absurdist sketch-comedy that Monty Python peddled, taking their cue from the likes of Spike Milligan and the Goon Show.
My problem is that, often, the comedy of this line of modern British comedy leans heavily on colonial racism. Spike Milligan was born in an India under colonial British rule in 1918 and throughout his career his comedy relied on racial stereotypes. This country is very good at racism and has been for a long time. Still rife in particular is that very British sort of colonial ‘charming racism’ that allows our foreign secretary to be an on-record big ‘ol racist.
I’m sceptical that replicating racial stereotypes can ever be the most effective way of challenging their existence. Neilson’s play gives room for irony, with the form of the vaudeville show disintegrating throughout, as the performers become less prepared to play along. There are different levels of reality in the script which might have been exploited. The direction of this production, though, doesn’t exploit the opportunity for irony. Perhaps I’d have been more easily dragged along if it had.
I’ve seen lots of bus adverts and trailers for a film called Victoria & Abdul, which makes it clear enough to me that we are not past colonialism. Not that I thought we were but the fact there seems to be a need for a film in which Queen Victoria is a sympathetic, witty Empress of India with a quirky brown sidekick intensifies my belief that white people donning turbans and putting on subcontinent accents and liberally spattering their dialogue with ‘sahib’ is not Something With Which I Am Down.
I wanted to like this show. After the aforementioned skit I stopped wanting to. The presentation was earnest enough to begin with, and the performers very charming. The Indian caricature served to remind me of the potential of charm to cover up the functioning of darker mechanisms. I really think that could have been the point of Edward Gant, had it had more awareness. As it was, the characters were flat, with too much realism in the wrong places, and I will not forgive its uncritical reliance on a colonial past.