NI's Big Telly Theatre Company bring another collection of oddballs and eccentricities to the stage, to sublime effect
One cannot consider the work of Northern Ireland's Big Telly Theatre Company linearly. Linearly, their productions are as coherent as a malapropism, as bumpy as a dusty country road and as unsettling as the most enduring horror movies. But it is precisely because of these qualities that everything they do achieves a sort of timelessness. Three years ago they amused and bemused us with the baffling, off-the-wall yet unforgettably brilliant Melmoth The Wanderer, and their One Sandwich Short Of A Genius – hereafter One Sandwich – is no different: the title is as nonsensical as the narrative appears, but the overall effect is memorable, even sublime.
Central to One Sandwich is the nuclear family gone wrong, the typical dysfunctional family found in The Simpsons, Family Guy and just about every modern day sitcom imaginable, presented to the viewer through a fresh and unexpected prism. All at once, One Sandwich is melodramatic, comedic, reflective, self-reflexive, frightening and musical, a melange of genres sprung in our faces haphazardly yet hilariously. Five, strong-willed, expressive actors – co-writer Shelley Atkinson, Patrick J. O'Reilly, Claire Lamont, Michael Diana and Conor Grimes – give it absolutely everything they have, taking their respective archetypes – the manipulative mother, the sporty son, the highly-strung daughter, the father figure and the mystery man – and peeling away their layers delectably and deliriously.
This tale, about a family who allegedly have nothing to lose but in reality have plenty, is the kind that keeps everyone in the theatre on their toes. Most fascinating of all is the matriarch herself, June Evelyn Talbot. As portrayed by the simply fantastic Shelley Atkinson, June is a mother of outlandish questions, reprehensible actions and literally keeping up appearances: in other words, Hyacinth Bucket gone haywire. Atkinson's stately, pronounced and sometimes shrill line delivery goes hand in hand with consistently creepy expressions, resulting in a revelatory comic creation. She's the sort of person you wouldn't want in charge of anything, let alone the biggest day of your life. Yet that's exactly what June's son and daughter have to deal with when their mother tries to organise their life and marriage respectively!
Little wonder, then, that One Sandwich is so chaotic. Yet it is also rather relatable. When watching these individuals, audiences will surely sympathise with anyone who attempts to maintain their sanity amongst the collection of oddballs in front of them. Classic pop songs feature extremely randomly, both fourth walls and characters' hearts are broken, literally and figuratively, and when the theatre lights switch on and the final bows have taken place, one is left contemplating a play that riskily straddles the line between serious theatre and prim pantomime... and, thanks to the dedication of director Zoe Seaton and the cast, gets away with it. For all of its confused comedy, for all its intelligent, idiosyncratic incoherence, One Sandwich Short Of A Genius could well be the ultimate and most ultimately rewarding statement on the trials and tribulations of the nuclear family.
One Sandwich Short Of A Genius will be performed at Armagh's Market Place Theatre on April 4. For more information, click here.