If you’re of a certain vintage, like myself, you might remember The Numskulls. They appeared in (I think) The Topper comic, and they were a bunch of little men who lived inside another guy’s body, and each week you could read their hilarious escapades as they channelled blood in and out of his heart in buckets, made his legs work, grew hairs out of his ears, gave him dumb thoughts, and so on. Light in the Dark Theatre Company’s Mein Hodenkrebs made me think of these little guys instantly.
Basically, you’ve got two concurrent series of events going on. Zak is mourning the death of his best mate, skulking in his room, having too much to drink and going out on the razz; having unprotected sex, accidentally acquiring a boyfriend, and ignoring the fact that one of his testicles is growing a lump. Medical examination reveals that he does indeed have testicular cancer, requiring chemotherapy. Has he caught the cancer in time, or will he end up dead like his mate? That story is shown completely in video, played on a big screen above the stage.
Meanwhile, on the stage, the four actors – Ben Loftus, David Wallace, Giacomo Galbiati and Kyle Lawson – play various roles in a series of scenes that show the journey of the cancer gene through Zak’s body; starting at the rectum, working its way via the lymph nodes to the lungs, and ending up with a grand, Eisenstein-like Battle of the Chemo. It’s a clever idea, and there’s no shortage of energy or commitment by the company into making every scene visually or linguistically eccentric. There’s also an attempt to weave the current political climate into the script, but that made it feel like it was on the fence between being a political satire and a comedy about the body’s defences. It works in part, although they do the idea to death. I did laugh at the ironic “exit means exit” line, though.
However, the live scenes – especially the big battle – went on a very long time, and I do think this show would have benefited from some severe pruning. The shrieking, falsetto voices that some of the actors adopted from time to time – reminiscent of Monty Python’s Hell’s Grannies – actually made it impossible to understand their lines. Some scenes simply came across as gross and puerile; you could understand the seed of humour buried underneath, but it was forced and rushed, and the humour never had time to land. The guys have a lot of ideas that they’re trying to express, but in the end they all got trampled on in a drive for excess.
Which is a shame, because the recorded video was absolutely superb. Crisp, funny, ascerbic, gruesome, and emotional at the end when Zak’s friend’s ashes are finally scattered. The blurry double vision to convey the sense of drunkenness was very effective, and kudos to the actor (not sure who it was) who was prepared to go bottom-out into the street whilst being filmed (much to the surprise of the passer-by). A shortened edit would be a perfect advisory video for guys to remember to check for lumps and bumps and not be scared of going to the doctor.
I always say that I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success, and there’s no doubt that there was plenty of bravery on show. There were some quieter, subtler characterisations that were more effective – for example, the boyfriend on the video, the Gollum guard, the Chief Sperm, and the sensible gene that wants to kill the cancer cell – performed variously (I think) by Messrs Lawson and Loftus. But good comedy is probably the most difficult thing for a group of actors to achieve – and I’m afraid this proved it. What makes someone laugh is very subjective, and the whole live action element was simply too frantic, ragged and maniacal for me.