Bicycles that turn human, humans who turn bicycle, an army of the one-legged, an invisible to the naked eye carved chest, a basement Eternity and a murder victim who comes back to life as a copper ….
These are just some of the elements that make up what has been described as the world’s first post-modern novel: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien.
Written by the Irishman, originally known as Brian O’Nolan, in 1939, it was rejected by his publisher and was finally printed in 1966 to much acclaim.
That O’Brien claimed the manuscript had been blown away, page by page, from the boot of his car tells you all you need to know about the man and his wonderfully skewed mind.
But how to adapt such a fantastical work for the stage? With great aplomb, no little genius and a lot of humour if the quite brilliant production by Miracle Theatre which is touring Cornwall until August 26, is anything to go by.
Writer/director Bill Scott and his gang of merry men and women are no strangers to messing with Cornish minds – witness the 2013 production of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.
That was a brave one but staging the even more surreal Third Policeman could be viewed as commercial suicide. The fact that it has sold out all over the South West and has received glowing reviews from audiences, is testament to Miracle’s ingenious way with a story, no matter how out-there it is.
I saw it at St Mawes Castle last night – the majority of those around me were chuckling nay guffawing throughout. However, there were a few WTF stony faces, including a chap who kept looking around astonished at his fellow audience members as if he were the only sausage left on the barbecue. That’s theatre at its most delicious.
And talking of bangers, The Third Policeman is set in a sausage-shaped world where our “hero” is obsessed by philosopher de Selby, so much so she (in this case, “he” in the novel) wants to publish the definitive critique of the man. In order to raise the funds to get it published, she murders old man Mathers for his cash box in cahoots with publican Divney.
Thereon in things get strange. Very strange.
You can trace a direct lineage of the comedy of the absurd from The Third Policeman; through The Goons and Spike Milligan’s Q to Reeves and Mortimer, The League of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh.
There is a brilliantly obtuse moment in the second half (where things get really mind-melting) when a scene is repeated verbatim two-and-a-half times. It’s then you realise David Lynch must be a Flann fan.
None of this would work without the cast. Hannah Stephens holds the whole thing together in the central role of Nameless. With a nod and a wink, she’s almost one of us, bewildered and beguiled by what is happening around her.
Ben Dyson is in his element. Always one for a peculiar comedy turn, he brings a touch of the Pythons to Sergeant Pluck; as naturally funny an actor as you can find. Ben Kernow is his equal as Policeman MacCruikseen, a wonderfully bizarre creation, helped by the fact that he looks every inch the Irishman (it must have something to do with that Celtic surname).
Catherine Lake lends superb support as sinister Old Mathers and the completely bonkers Martine Finnucane, leader of the one-legged. The parping trombone soundtrack only heightens the madness.
This really is a marvellous production – designed with great imagination by Jude Munden – that has to be seen if only for its glorious lyricism.
To borrow an album title from fellow Irish arch-surrealists and obvious O’Brien fans, Stump, this show is most definitely “a fierce pancake”.
By LeeTrewhela Cornwall Live Wed 09 Aug 2017