HUNCHTHEATRE are nothing but ambitious. Having previously enjoyed success with A Hero Of Our Time (based on Mikhail Lermontov’s book of the same name) and To See Salisbury (a response to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a Novichok nerve agent in 2018), they are back with a show inspired by Joseph Roth’s 1939 novella The Legend Of The Holy Drinker. Yet again, their ambition triumphs as they transport Andreas – like the novella’s author a hard drinking individual – from Paris on the cusp of invasion by the Germans to the streets of London, Spring 2020. It works a treat, aided by a cacophony of extraordinary sounds, much twirling of umbrellas, a little bit of saxophone and cross-dressing – and some sexual shenanigans under a giant plastic sheet. And for good measure, all packed somewhat frantically into just one hour.
Directed by Vladimir Shcherban (half of HUNCHtheatre, the other half being Oliver Bennett who wrote and acts in the play), The Legend Of The Holy Drinker centres on the fluctuating fortunes of Andreas, played expertly by Oleg Sidorchik. He’s homeless, sleeping rough, living in the UK illegally, not long out of prison and has an intimate relationship with only one thing in the world: the bottle. For that matter, multiple bottles brimming with hard liquor.
Yet unexpected good fortune comes his way as he is given £1,000 by a businessman (Bennett) who is on a mission to seek salvation for his part in the City’s obsession with greed. What follows is more up and down than a ride on Blackpool’s Big Dipper as Andreas sets out to improve his life, only to squander everything – mainly on drink – only to be saved again and again by yet more generosity from City folk. Groundhog Day.
On the proverbial Big Dipper, he meets Caroline (Emily Houghton) – the woman whose husband he killed and for which he did time. He also does some work for Terry and Tina (both wittily played by Ed Davis) – I will let you decide whether Terry and Tina are two people or just one (my money’s on the latter). He also bumps into Kanjak, a friend from school-days (Davis, again) who is now a famous footballer. Indirectly through him, he spends a dreamy night with Gabby (Eva Mashtaler). For good measure, there’s a sojourn to Soho and encounters with scantily-dressed women (Mashtaler) – and a chance meeting with Vince (Davis) who befriended him in prison.
Will Andreas, who for the most part grunts and mumbles his way through life, continue to enjoy the Big Dipper, fuelled by the kindness and generosity of others? Or will he fall off? For you to find out.
Showing at the Vault Festival in London until 2 February, HUNCHtheatre’s adaptation of The Legend Of The Holy Drinker is original, witty and funny. Yet it also uses Roth’s story to shine a light on issues that to this day continue to plague (and blight this country): homelessness, widespread addiction to drink and our attitude towards immigration.
As is HUNCHtheatre’s way, they now intend to take the play to charities involved in dealing with these three key issues – and performing it at their centres and conducting post-show discussions. Bravo. Theatre for everyone. The way theatre should be. Inclusive, not elitist.