Wednesday of 7th week: term is trudging on unbearably close to the end, and Oxford has been hit by a freezing blizzard that has, apparently, drifted over from the depths of Siberia. What, you may ask, could ever make you leave the comforting confines of your room?
I think I might have just the play for you – a production that will bring you a shot of energy at this potentially dreary point in term. Tom Basden’s The Crocodile is based on a short story by Dostoyevsky, and was first put on in 2015 as part of the Manchester International Festival. Set in 19th century St. Petersburg, The Crocodile follows an Avant-Garde yet totally failing actor, Ivan, and his friends Zack and Anya, as Ivan somehow finds himself swallowed whole by a crocodile at the zoo. Whilst at first Ivan demands that that the zoo’s management cut open the croc, he soon finds that his new reptilian home could provide an alternative means for attention, and the route to success he has always sought.
As soon as I entered the Pilch on this icy Wednesday I knew I was in for a bit of fun – Nitrous Cow Productions created an instantly gratifying pre-show atmosphere. Members of the crew dished out different pairs of furry animal ears for audience members to wear. Sarah Spencer’s original score should also be credited for the part it plays in creating the mood: it was cheeky and circus-like, whilst at the same time grounding the play in its Russian setting.
The play unhesitatingly introduces the audience to its pretentious protagonist with full force. Ivan, played by Dominick Weatherby, erupts onto the stage, interrogating audience members and exclaiming with frustration: “What is this world coming to?” Weatherby delivers a very impressive performance from the outset. He commands the stage not only vocally but also physically, taking Ivan’s performative nature to the next level as he jumps, dips, and turns across the central space. Ivan’s fierce character is intelligently countered by his strait-laced friend, Zack, played by Luke Wintour. Wintour’s character responds to Ivan’s performativity with a slower and well-considered cynicism, creating a satisfying contrast that produces some of this production’s best comic moments. As Ivan declares to his friend proudly: “I’m a lion, and you’re a, you know, a cow.” Kate Weir delivers the role of Anya (Zack’s girlfriend and, complicatedly, Ivan’s former flame) with a hilarious level of shrieking energy, both complementing Ivan’s performativity and further emphasising Zack’s squareness. The audience cannot help but like and enjoy these three central characters and the ridiculousness that surrounds them.
This trio is supported by some other strong performances. Jon Berry is a particular highlight – his pedantic performance as bureaucrat Mr. Zlobin took the laughter to new levels. The play’s pedantic undertone is encapsulated in Julia Pilkington’s depiction of zookeeper Mr. Popov as she demarks a section of the stage with tinsel and demands seven roubles from Ivan and Zack who just happen to be inside it.
It is through attention to comic detail that this production succeeds, and it is therefore necessary to pay tribute to its director, Alex Rugman. From Jon Berry’s insanely camp table-setting during the dinner scene (which I must confess nearly brought me to tears, I was laughing so much), to Ivan’s crocodile-themed Lacoste sliders, a protestor’s ‘Wenger Out’ placards, and Mr. Zlobin’s stress-fruit, Rugman took great care over this production and scored comedic goals in the process. The production’s ability to straddle genres is impressive – it’s kookiness appeals to the Mighty Boosh fans among us whilst Peep Show enthusiasts are sure to love its pedantry.
One aspect of the play that felt less considered potentially was the role of politics in the script. It was difficult to ascertain the meaning behind Ivan’s great rhetorical ramblings. Russia’s politically divided atmosphere in the 19th and early 20th century was touched on somewhat, but I think it could have provided a more effective edge to the production’s comedic successes than it did. This might just be an issue with the script itself.
Overall, this production is a great night out with heaps of talent and, for me, its experimental nature is what student theatre should be about.