Review: The Nose (BATS Theatre)
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
Upon first reading, Nikolai Gogol's short story "The Nose" did not immediately strike me as theatrical. And yet, the surreal, comic and political story about a man who wakes up without a nose and tries to recover it only to find it has taken on a life of its own, has been adapted for the stage (most frequently as an opera) since the 1930s. This adaptation, by The Dashing Rocks and written and directed by Jonny Potts and Michael Trigg, brings this story into 21st Century Wellington, with a heavy dash of local references to emphasise the point.
Digs at the hipster culture are a speciality ("one beer please, extra local"). Jokes like this are part of the pick 'n' mix comedy running throughout the show. We have political satire, social commentary, meta humour, prop comedy, cheap one-liners and even a sprinkling of toilet humour (which I could easily have gone without). In there are some absolute gems (such as when a tinder match asks our de-nosed protagonist, played by Alex Greig, for a selfie, to which he furiously responds "you women are all the same, it's all nose, nose, nose!"), while others are stale and dragging (such as when the narrator, played by Potts himself, draws attention to a Gogol/Google pun, then draws attention to the fact that he is drawing attention to it, mocking the very idea, before standing aside only for the pun to be made anyway, overworking what could otherwise have been an easy laugh).
This kiwi adaptation is self-confessed silliness, and it is all well and good to be silly, but throwing every idea at the wall under that visor does not a balanced show make. Trigg's direction falls into a similar trap, as different rules seem to apply to every scene and every character. For the opening scene, in which a barber (Jerome Chandrahasen) discovers the nose in a bread roll, he takes an almost pantomime approach that had me in stitches and felt fitting to the strangeness of the situation. Thereafter that level of overacting is dropped, leading to moments where Greig shows off some jarringly good performance that contradicts the light-hearted tone. The inconsistency becomes terribly distracting.
One notable choice in the production, the cause of which I do not entirely understand, was to have Jake Brown (who swaps between several characters along with Chandrahasen, Bronwyn Turei, and Maria Williams) recreate his activist poet character Julian from "The Christmas Detention Centre". Not in that elements were obviously borrowed from the persona, the whole character was pinched, name and all, from the festive comedy from last year, unless this is a recurring character of his from several productions. Brown, who is a poet as well as an actor, is given total liberty to fill the stage and appears to be having a whale of a time, but the rest of the cast are as well. A scene in which The Nose (played by Hilary Penwarden) is interviewed by a panel of zany reporters, each fighting for attention, is evidence of that. Granted, Brown is still the most entertaining presence on this confused stage, but direction that is obviously geared towards allowing its performers to have greater creative freedom sorely feels the drawbacks of having several strong performers all working with their own ideas at the same time.
Regardless, Potts' and Trigg's writing is the centre point of the whole production. It sadly came off as a springboard for every joke and idea that they have been storing for ages, which left it messy, directionless, and, though impressively faithful to the source material, feeling like an excuse for absurdity without the courage to make up its own narrative spine. Two stars.
Whispers from the crowd:
"I'm from Liverpool but I understood the Wellington references, there was a lot of self aware humour. It was strange, but not everything has to be serious."
P.S. I did also want to mention that this show had the funniest programme I have come across. "Look, there are a loads of ways of skinning this cat, and we chose to do it this way." Kudos gentlemen, more strength to you.