Today marks my 400th consecutive day of viewing and reviewing digital theatre so I was pleased to find something rather special with which to mark it. The very first online play I tackled, way back when the pandemic was in its infancy, was Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio, so it was a slice of sheer serendipity that I was able to turn to another piece to which his name is attached by way of celebrating this quadricentennial occasion. Commissioned by the enterprising New Perspectives, Crouch’s latest coup is to replicate B.S. Johnson’s steam of consciousness novel House Mother Normal as a digital installation at the Brighton Festival; this can be viewed as a site specific performance but also online. It is an extremely clever conceit and provides a mesmerising kaleidoscope of voices and emotions which would benefit from repeat viewings to uncover its many layers.
Johnson’s novel hails from the early 1970s and, given the turbulent year we have had, is fittingly set in an old people’s home where the residents feel the pressures of loneliness, reminisce about their pasts and bleakly contemplate their futures. The original features identical length chapters of interior monologue from the minds of eight increasingly elderly and increasingly medically challenged old people plus the internalised running commentary of the house mother/matron who supposedly cares for them. The writing repeatedly covers the same portion of time as events are replayed through the various lenses and different perspectives are explored. In the later chapters the personal stories become increasingly fragmented with whole pages left blank where there are no thoughts in train. Readers meet the protagonists sequentially and individually with resonances and echoes doing the work of pulling the narrative together.
Crouch’s dramatized version actually gets nearer to the author’s original intention than a book can. Rather than keep flipping back in time at the end of each chapter he has the speakers constantly on screen and all talking at once in a constant babble of sound, the various elements of which fade in and out as their importance grows and diminishes. One or two of the more articulate characters keep up a constant stream of comment and reflection; Sarah (Vivien Bridson) and Ivy (Marsha Millar) are able to comment directly on their present experience and react to various triggers to recall their pasts. Ron (Tyrone Huggins) is concerned with his bodily ailments but also gradually reveals a dark secret which troubles him just as much. Others contribute rather more sparsely (though remain a constant visual presence); George (Tim Barlow)’s speech is full of non sequiturs about half remembered incidents and Rosetta (Sharon Morgan) internalises almost everything other than the occasional single word in Welsh. Holding the framework together is the House Mother (Amelda Brown) whose overt articulations highlight a cheery demeanour and a sense of care but which are shown to be a sham – she actually despises the people she is working with/for and reveals depths of depravity as she manipulates the inmates for her own sadistic pleasure. She also has an extremely strange relationship with her dog Ralphie culminating in a scene which is highly unsettling. If all that sounds terribly confusing it is.. and is meant to be; I found it disturbingly mesmerising.
Giles Thacker’s video design is suitably stark and very straightforward with each character’s head and shoulders appearing against a plain black background. This is entirely appropriate as it is the dialogue which has to be the absolute focus. Crouch has filmed each monologue separately and then mixed them together choosing where to place emphasis by boosting and lowering sound levels in Thor McIntyre-Burnie’s sound design which also includes snippets of the music the characters are listening to and the intermittent barking of Ralphie; it is advisable to wear headphones to get the full experience. As a bonus (although it would take up a huge amount of time) you can also watch each monologue unfold individually complete with, in some cases, incredibly long pauses. These versions are subtitled and, where appropriate, translated. It’s perhaps a pity that there’s an access limitation of only 48 hours as it would be good to really pick all this apart by looking at, for instance, one monologue per day and end by rewatching the finished article.
I have written a number of times about the increasing ubiquity of the monologue form during the last twelve months. While this is totally understandable in current circumstances, a certain amount of fatigue does set in and I have become grateful for any variations which have rekindled interest. House Mother Normal takes this to extremes with nine monologues happening simultaneously but in capturing the spirit of the writer and in delivering another frisson-inducing piece of stunning online theatre, Tim Crouch and New Perspectives can be applauded for taking a daring leap and making my 400th day as memorable as my first.
House Mother Normal is available as part of the Brighton Festival – click here
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