Review: The Bald Prima Donna

MARK DANCINGER pense que La Cantatrice Chauve est très bien (He thinks the play is good).

bien Cambridge Corpus Playrooms French pamplemousse Theatre

I’ve always loved absurdism, and in particular the plays of Eugene Ionesco.

He strikes a perfect balance between the farcical and the intensely philosophical in a way which no other author can quite capture.

For me, The Bald Prima Donna is his masterpiece, and so I was excited yet nervous when I was asked to review it. It’s an easy play to get wrong, either by not quite grasping the absurdist logic or by overdoing it, and descending into chaos.

In reality, I had nothing to worry about. Director Maria Montague skilfully navigates the difficulties that the script presents, crafting an original, creative and hilarious take on the source material.

The show takes the form of a slow descent into miscommunication and insanity, culminating in the complete breakdown of language itself. I will not describe the bizarre scenes that await you in the Corpus Playroom for fear of spoiling their effect. Suffice to say that they do the term ‘absurdism’ justice.

Particularly commendable is Montague’s decision to bridge the gap between the original French dialogue and the more commonly performed English translation. Characters switch between English and French at a moment’s notice, sometimes going further and briefly breaking into Spanish, German or a host of other languages. This format perfectly mirrors the content of the show.

However, don’t worry if your French has, like mine, been in steady decline since GCSE. The action is accompanied by surtitles, helpfully projected onto the stage walls. Initially I found these distracting, and struggled to focus on the actors and the surtitles simultaneously. However, despite their clunkiness, you quickly get used to them, and in fact they are used to good effect, providing visual jokes that are funny in their own right.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this play is on the part of the actors, whose performances are consistently hilarious, even to a predominantly non-French speaking audience. Their comic timing was perfect, and their ability to switch between languages so quickly was astonishing.

Particular credit has to go to Jake Spence, who added a wonderful physicality to the character of Mr Smith, and to Charles Fourmaux as the sexually charged Fire-Chief, who has the most flexible eyebrows I’ve ever seen. Still, it seems unfair to single out performers as it was truly an ensemble effort. The cast skilfully played off each other, and worked well as a unit.

Nevertheless, the play was still very rough in certain respects. Occasionally, such as in the final scene, the nuanced acting gave way to what was essentially dicking around on stage, which spoilt the effectiveness of the script. Also, the actors, perhaps understandably, were prone to corpsing during the more bizarre moments of the play. This removed some of the professionalism from the show.

The show was also flawed from a technical perspective. The set was essentially non-existent and the lighting design was diabolical, constantly detracting from the actors performances when it should have been enhancing them. However, the acting was strong enough to overcome these technical setbacks.

The Bald Prima Donna is truly bizarre. It feels like a children’s cartoon crossed with a Derrida essay- but this should be taken as a complement. Though it is a little rough around the edges, the team do an excellent job of realising a challenging but brilliant script.

If you want a completely unique theatrical experience, I can definitely recommend The Bald Prima Donna.

Four stars