The Bald Prima Donna

Julia Lichnova-Dinan 25 February 2010

The Corpus Playroom, 9.30pm 23rd-27th February (Corpus Christi Freshers’ Play)


One hardly knows what to expect from an absurdist Romanian play inspired by the non sequiturs of foreign language phrasebooks. Ionesco’s script – a self-proclaimed ‘anti-play’ – sways from banal to absurd, imbued with mechanical characters and a sheer lack of meaning. Yet Al-Kadhi and Warner’s vivacious production is to be commended for impressive, often hilarious performances from an unusual script.

At first, actors struggled to create distinct characters while responding to the play’s absurdist demands. Mrs Smith (Isabella Baynham-Herd)’s opening speech, though communicative lacked vigour; Mr Smith (Yonni Allen) was trapped by his props and initially under-delivered and Jeremy Evans was amusing as Mrs Martin, but did not deviate from a perpetually frantic centre.

A script that demands actors to span across indifference, fury and overwhelming love in seconds asks not for realism, but for a certain self-convinced madness. Characters swiftly improved throughout the play as Allen upped his mad eccentricity and Baynham-Herd shone as a flustered, excitable housewife. Mr Martin (Pierre Novellie)’s impeccable comic timing and emphatic interactions with everything on stage managed to not only strike the absurd notes, but also the play’s funniest harmonies.

Secondary roles appeared undefined: Mary (Leah Betts) was pleasingly coy, but did not develop and the Fire Chief (Andrew Holland) offered a compromised act throughout. Excellent staging, particularly in storytelling scenes, saved these weaker performances. The play’s gradual descent into insanity powerfully engaged the audience, and partially redeemed a rushed climax, in which some of actors frantically slurred the play’s maddest lines.

The set was impressive in its details: bizarre teapots, clocks showing different times, a picture of Queen Victoria maintained a caricaturistic, skewed Englishness throughout the play. Paired with well-chosen costumes and music, the maid who winds up her masters like clockwork dolls and tilts empty frames that she then uses as mirrors all crafted precisely the quaint, unsettling backdrop the original play demands. The audience’s unanimous laughter was testimony to this play’s final success.

Julia Lichnova-Dinan