One Sandwich Short of a Genius

Big Telly channel Dario Fo in this time-shifting play about familial woes

Meet the Talbots. From an outside perspective, they appear to be a pretty average bunch, straight out of stereotypical middle-class suburbia. They are Mum, Dad and two kids – gauche sports jock son Kenny and soon-to-be married daughter Becky.

From the look of her sharp business suit and deadly stilettos, Mum has a pretty high-powered job. Dad, well… Dad is absent; he has gone off on a mission to find himself. But no worries, one can always hire an actor to fill the space at home and do the father-of-the-bride bit at the wedding.

No matter that the actor in question happens to be short, bald and English, whereas Dad, apparently, is a tall, hirsute Ulsterman. Sure, nobody will notice and, guess what, they don't. So far, so not so average.

One simply never knows what Big Telly Theatre Company is going to come up with next. During its 27-year existence, its eclectic list of credits veers between Yeats and Kafka, Spike Milligan and Oscar Wilde, JM Synge and John Murphy, and works by a whole host of contemporary writers, including co-founder/artistic director Zoe Seaton.


Its 2012 adaptation of Melmoth the Wanderer, Charles Maturin's brooding 700-page Gothic novel, was an intriguing affair, a mixture of the grotesque and the absurd, using masque, mime, music and a particularly manic brand of humour to portray the book's wide-ranging, dark themes.

The same creative team that brought us Melmoth has reassembled for another piece of absurdist theatre, which appears to have been heavily influenced by the overblown, knife-edge comedy of veteran Italian actor, playwright, comedian, director and political campaigner Dario Fo. It has just returned from touring the Scottish highlands and islands, where audiences left the theatres reportedly breathless with laughter.

The rather unattractive publicity image – showing a focaccio loaf bearing a lopsided face made out of olives, cheese and tomato – gives an immediate clue to the fact that slapstick and silliness are very much the order of the day at The MAC. But beneath the deliberately caricatured characters, there is subtle social comment too.

Co-creator Shelley Atkinson is a very fine performer, who excels in physical expressionism. As June Talbot, the mad matriarch who just about holds the family together, she does a brilliant mad-as-a-badger-masquerading-as-sane schtick.

Hers is the pivotal character, a woman whose husband has left her – and, as events unfold, who could blame him? – a mother struggling to buoy up an overgrown schoolboy son (Keith Singleton), and an overweight daughter (Niamh McGrath), whose fiancé Dave Andy Murray is something of a mystery man.

Behind closed doors and within Diego Pitarch's deceptively anonymous sitting room set, it soon emerges that this is a family on the spectrum. The daily ritual is repeated endlessly, word for word – protein drinks for Kenny, as he awaits news of his captaincy of the rowing team, and a strict no-sandwich diet for Becky, as her big day approaches.

Then there is the dizzying presence of a deranged mother, stressed out by organising a wedding to impress her friends while covering up redundancy, debt and the disconcerting presence in the household of a clueless failed actor

Teetering around on her high heels, her skirt and jacket just a tad too snug a fit, Atkinson skilfully drives the action, steering a sure path between comedy and pathos. She and her fellow creator/director Seaton are clearly singing off the same song sheet, peeling away the layers on a trio of damaged human beings, pathetically reliant on one another for security and reassurance.

When they mistakenly and hilariously discover the reason why their assumed father looks and sounds nothing like their actual father, they join forces in a show of unity which the poor confused actor in their midst finds both touching and bizarre.

Tom Giles has been handed the unenviable straight man task, required to remain earnest and po-faced as an actor and wannabe singer, who has given up on the lead roles and sunk to this level of dissembling. Gay, socially hesitant and out of his depth, he too has his demons, not least in the disappointment he instinctively believes he has caused his parents.

Then, out of the blue, comes a call from his agent. Word has got around of the crazy universe into which he has moved. A reality television show beckons, bringing potential fame and professional resurrection. Act Two pitches us into the manipulative madness of this brand of popular entertainment, turning the Talbots' already surreal lifestyle into a veritable shipwreck.

Out on the high seas – where Pitarch's formally striped living-room wallpaper has taken on new life as the billowing sails of a medieval galleon – a male/female Spanish conquistador named Juan (Itxaso Moreno) bounds on board, caught in a time warp between the 16th and 21st centuries, glowering, threatening and acting like something out a Disney cartoon.

At this point, the whole affair turns seriously pear-shaped, as the cleverly crafted, sharply focused social satire crumbles under a ludicrous series of not very interesting events. As if to remind us that we are deep in showbiz unreality, faux-Dad's face periodically pops up as a back-projected image, intoning his take on the disintegrating chaos.

The climax, when it finally arrives, marks a welcome return to home territory. It is a moment of truth for the Talbots, their last chance to come together as a viable unit and put to right mistaken impressions and misguided actions. In a last ditch flourish, audience members are roped in to fill the gaps in the family circle and to rescue the unfocused confusion of the past 20 minutes with a group portrait lit up by wit, charm and happiness.

One Sandwich Short of Genius transfers to Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin from March 27 – 29.