Thursday, November 14, 2013

Royal Flush: Creative genius and the toilet

When one sets off to see a play about Thomas Crapper and a modern toilet attendant one never quite knows what to expect… but tends to assume (for better or worse) that it will descend into a toilet-humour fest.

In Royal Flush Nick Lane manages to avoid the temptation almost completely… for 2 hours! He doesn’t bat an eyelash at Thomas Crapper’s singularly appropriate surname, nor does he plunge to the depths of mocking a toilet cleaner’s profession. For this alone he should receive a gold medal. 

Further admiration to the playwright for the fact that he sets out to explore the relationship between Man and Toilet as akin to Frankenstein and his creature: both characters in the two (very different) halves of the production have the slight spark of mad genius to see the toilet as having potential for great things (as well as great annoyance). Though neither part is a gothic thriller, both look at human interaction, both on a human-to-human and human-to-technology level. 

Part I tells the story of Thomas Crapper, through the gimik of his writing a letter to an old flame.  From   it is a touching and thoroughly researched rags to riches story.
Photo: Rich Seam Theatre Company
his apprenticeship in London, through to his engagement to installing royal Toilets at Sandringham

I had the special privilege of watching the play in the company of the current owner of Thomas Crapper & Co. who not only knows the toilets back to front, but is responsible for the updated additions of Thomas Crapper’s biography. So it was for all the world like watching a beloved Shakespeare play in the company of the Bard himself (or close as I’ll probably ever get!)

My favorite memory of the evening will undoubtedly be looking at each other with a knowing smile when Crapper eluded to the one less-fortunate innovation: the bottom slapper toilet (you can read more about that in my Thomas Crapper & Co. blog post!)

Part II brings us forward to 2012 where  a disenfranchised ‘Maintenance engineer’ (toilet cleaner) is getting ready for the royal visit to a new wing of the Old Folks home where he works. This half is more fragmented, faster paced and slightly more scatological (though still pun-avoiding!) There are some clever links to part I… through mentions of Crapper and Shelly’s Frankenstein, and royal connections. Association with the toilet may sometimes be a burden but it also has the potential to offer god-like power (or so our hero sometimes believes… and in some ways he is right.)

In the end it was all an elaborate set up for a punch line that neither I nor my companion saw coming and was perfectly delivered… so once again commendations to the playwright and the actor.

Matthew Booth’s solo performance is quite captivating. It takes a rare actor to sustain a play of that length, commanding a single character with enough variety to tell a story. He slips in and out of supporting roles with remarkable agility, never losing his core narrative. 

As a whole the piece has great potential, but plenty of room for development. Its biggest weakness (which, let’s face it, is the weakness of most new works…) is that is needs to be tightened. Though, as an actor, Booth has no trouble remaining engaging for the entire two hours the narrative could be consolidated more concisely without loosing the essence of the story. Use of imagery and stronger blocking might have been helpful in some places as well; particularly in Crapper’s fairly technical descriptions of his water closets, and in the frequent (and sometimes slightly awkward) transitions between scenes in the second half, which broke up the narrative. But with an essentially strong core all the rest can be developed in time.

Any work which takes such a nuanced look at the fundamental relationship between creative genius and toilet should be celebrated!

If you’re in Halifax on November 17 there’s still time to catch the première. If not, stay tuned for version 2.0, which I sincerely hope will be touring the country before too long!


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