THE TITANIC ORCHESTRA Pleasance One, Edinburgh

Only in Edinburgh’s August are you likely to find an immense, patient queue snaking round the block for half an hour, unable to get to the bar, in order to see a Bulgarian playwright channelling Beckett, Pinter and Kafka in intense, wrist-slitting Mittel-European gloom about the human condition. Even if it does star John Hannah as a time-travelling, undead Harry Houdini, have the catnip word “Titanic” in the title, and be improbably acclaimed as “a madcap comedy of illusion”.
But Hristo Boytchev is a much renowned Bulgarian playwright and political satirist, and attention must be paid to this UK premiere. So what we have here is a group of tramps at a derelict railway station, living on rubbish that trains throw out as they go past, and dreaming of escape along the rails which link and envelop the world from which they are social exiles. Meto (Jonathan Rhodes) tries to organize them, as a theatrical director yelling “I can’t work in these conditions!”. Louko (Stuart Crowther) is solidly sullen, Finnish Heidi Niemi, the only woman, is depressed . Doko (played by Ivan Barnev from Sofia) is a heartfelt if rather overdone imbecile, mourning for his one love, a bear called Katya . She died, probably as the others unkindly say because he sold the last of her food for vodka. They all booze a lot, whenever someone throws a half-finished bottle from the train.
But what is this? Out of a crate emerges the dapper tail-coated figure of John Hannah, who is no sooner murdered for his yellow patent shoes than he returns to life and starts creating illusions, because he is Harry Houdini. Who, being Hungarian-American, presumably returns to this dour 21c Europe to sort it out. He magics up the illusion that Doko’s bear is alive, selling tickets and driving the train (no, we don’t see the bear, dammit). He conjures up more beer. and gets drunk. He explains that all life is an illusion because men need “bread and circuses, all the world’s a stage’.

In the one moment of the 80-odd minutes which is really emotionally engaging, the group sing the European anthem from Beethoven’s 9th and pick up old buckets and rubbish which become violins, to play through disaster like the orchestra of the title. To hammer the point home and flatten the nailhead, Houdini declares that “The whole world is the Titanic and we’re along for the ride. The only escape is through illusion…the seventh dimension of the world is inside you..dream of a world beyond that we carry within us”. When he does magic up a train, it all gets grimmer until Doko adds the further moral that we are each alone, the whole world being just “the dream of a sleepwalker”.
Hannah gives it all he’s got, which is a lot; Russell Bolam directs with some wit, Anthony Lamble and Giles Thomas set it physically with excellent sound and light illusions of passing trains. Mark Bell, one of our best LeCoq-trained physical experts, gets them all falling over a lot. But it feels derivative of too many similar strands, its absurdism tires, and it hammers home its messages too sententiously. If you love such plays, it’s for you. the gloomy Niemi says it all: “Harry, you be weird. We all like to get pissed, but you taking it too far”. to 30 Aug

rating  three   3 Meece Rating


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