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A journey with two gents well worth the wait

The Underground Man, Belgrade Theatre, April 21 & 22.

I deliberately read nothing about this studio production, adapted by Nick Wood from Mick Jackson's acclaimed novel, in advance of attendance, relishing that Edinburgh Fringe unpredictability. I was not disappointed.

A two-hander with Iain Armstrong playing the eponymous Underground Man, William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, The Fifth Duke of Portland, an eccentric Nottinghamshire aristocrat and Mick Jasper who plays his Butler, Clement, and a range of other characters from his estate.

They are cleverly accompanied both musically and physically on stage by Nigel Waterhouse who composed the accordion accompaniment and who gnomishly provides soundtrack and sound effects to the piece.

Rather oddly, Clement is among the audience chatting before the performance, whether as a deliberate ice-breaker or simply greeting friends and family is unclear, a device repeated at the interval. So far, so Fringe.

The first half begins like a Dickensian “Last of the Summer Wine” with the Earl and his butler discussing a range of topics from his tunnelling, his ailments and his dreams. Against a simple set of six items of furniture and a large Brunel-like Cog system, Mick Jasper seamlessly morphs into other characters with simple clothing props, a change of body language and a new accent. The interactions are gentle and natural. Gradually the Earl’s mental and physical condition becomes more obvious, frustratingly to the disregard for any explanation of tunnels or title.

Elements of MR James infiltrate with childhood memories and visions of a floating boy, whilst further mystical elements include magical lights in the caves under the estate. These are juxtaposed with a dumb-show of the Earl accidentally igniting the cause of one of his gastric ailments with a candle and dousing the ensuing fire with contents of his chamber-pot.

By the second half, things turn darker with the Earl’s mental condition deteriorating and his seeking help from local folk medicine practitioners, the Oakley twins, sisters comically envisioned by the chameleon Jasper.

The Earl is by now desperate to ease his symptoms and visits a local doctor who introduces the notion of trepanning (skull surgery). A journey to Edinburgh for further information is cleverly recreated with Nigel Waterhouse providing the sounds on his squeeze-box. During his search for relief the Earl briefly touches on the great philosophical questions of the age in science, nature and faith.

The play touchingly concludes with the Earl’s final descent into a self-made hell. He buries the small bloody coin removed from the top of his skull, discovers the identity of the floating boy and meets a tragic end. However this was received with warm appreciative applause from a two-thirds full house that clearly enjoyed the shared journey in the company of these gentle gentlemen.

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