German absurdism meets schlock-horror in David Gieselmann's Mr Kolpert, where a series of surreal moments cause a dinner party to descend into chaos. The Curious Room's production is low-fi and gritty, but moments drag and the resulting revelations are less shocking than they should be...
I hesitate to put 'spoiler alerts' in theatre reviews, but in this case I think one is necessary - Mr Kolpert contains a number of grotesque surprises, but we need to delve into how this production fares with them to get to the heart of why this enterprise doesn't quite come off as well as intended.
The plot revolves around the apparent murder of Mr Kolpert - the accountant at the firm where Sarah works, who has invited her co-worker and her husband, Bastian, to join Sarah and her boyfriend Ralf for dinner - except they've forgotten to buy anything. An awkward evening of trying to order take-out ensues, exacerbated by the revelation of Mr Kolpert's corpse in the closet, and the subsequent murder and depravity that follow.
The joke here is the Sarah and Ralf admit they killed Mr Kolpert from the word go - they rile their guests with gruesome jests about where they've hidden the body, so the reveal is endlessly foreshadowed. It's a nice device, and suits the piece in that you're consistently unsure of whether the couple actually did it or not - the trick is how to work everything out once the body has splattered onto the floor.
And this is where The Curious Room's production falls down - they never quite capture the tone of the piece. The opening is played for laughs (as it should be, with plenty of elaborate jokes, including a classic ordering-take-away-food-over-the-phone moment), but everything is tinged with the kind of absurdity that made Monty Python such a success. The resulting mess is still an absurd sight to behold, but holds none of the shock value that would give this piece a necessary edge.
Odd as it sounds, I think this may be to do with the translation - David Tushingham's lines don't sound very natural. I think there is also a cultural issue - Germans seem infinitely more comfortable with the grotesque, while the Brits need to compartmentalise it: it's either disgusting comedy like Little Britain (where a projectile vomiting sequence is just fine and dandy), or an in-yer-face exercise in aggressive brutality in the style of Sarah Kane. Mr Kolpert appears to be between the two, and I think The Curious Room struggled with that as the shocking moments mounted.
The company have also mired themselves (bizarrely) somewhere between too much and too little mess - there's so much blood and vomit, but there isn't enough to fit their fully absurdist tone (although with any more, the front row would have required ponchos). In their notes, the company describe themselves as a co-operative - and there certainly is a sense here that a strong hand could have molded this more constructively.
Nonetheless, it's not like this isn't worth watching - the play's done the rounds since its Royal Court premiere in 2000, with productions at various fringe festivals, but there has yet to be a full London revival. This is a very nice step in the right direction - a decent production of a fascinating play which is unlike much of what English theatre has to offer. Here's hoping there's more on the horizon!