THE BIG I AM/ PEER GYNT (Liverpool Everyman Company 2018)

14 actors. 4 productions. 5 months

 

Following the huge success of the 2017 Liverpool Everyman Rep Company, the theatre is again embarking on a rep season of plays - comprised of a cast of 14 actors - for their 2018 Line-up, which Sophie has had the privilege of casting.

“If last season looked at our struggle to retain our humanity against all odds, then this season of plays looks at our attempts to shake it all up and do it differently." (Gemma Bodinetz)

Liverpool playwright Robert Farquhar’s re-imagining of Henrik Ibsen’s classic tale Peer Gynt completes the season, as Nick Bagnall directs The Big I Am. A time-travelling, city-hopping voyage with an enigmatic storyteller, The Big I Am takes us on a journey from wartime Britain to the ends of the earth as we follow Peer Gynt on a search for freedom.

The Everyman Company season will run from March to July 2018.

★★★★ whatsonstage.com, Robin Brown:

'How many f**ks does it take to reimagine Peer Gynt? Quite a few if Robert Farquhar's take on Henrik Ibsen's interminable Norwegian saga, taken by the scruff of the neck and jacked up with ketamine, is anything to go by.

The Big I Am was inspired by the playwright's memories of The Beatles and Monty Python and those influences are immediately clear in the tea-cosy-and-headscarf aesthetic of Gynt's family home. There's something of the young John Lennon and a dash of Alfie Elkins to the youthful Gynt: callous, arrogant, yes, but naive too and hard not to like.

Keddy Sutton is typically engaging in her role as Gynt's pinny-wearing Ma, ending up bundled into a kitchen cabinet as our protagonist heads to a wedding to bed the bride and fight the guests. It's the sort of thing the Everyman does so well and we might imagine that we know where this is going. And then all hell breaks loose as our protagonist begins a journey through time, space and metaphor.

This chaotic, cosmic Scouse fairytale is brash, lewd and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. But it's no wonder The Big I Am comes with an age restriction. There's sex, masturbation, drugs and – most horrific of all – audience participation.

The production throws curveballs as Gynt heads back to his ailing mother's deathbed and Nathan McMullen enjoys his finest moments as the protagonist's first incarnation (the role of Gynt shared by three actors across the show) . Next up, a whistle-stop tour through his next incarnations: a property mogul, a coke-sniffing, prostitute-bothering televangelist, a down-and-out. Liam Tobin has a lot of fun as the middle-aged Gynt but there's always pathos alongside the swagger.

By the time we see Richard Bremmer as the ailing Peer Gynt, trying to make sense of his life and mortality, Nick Bagnall's production still has some cards up its sleeve º Paul Duckworth's rag-and-bone-man is pitched somewhere between Fagin and The Mighty Boosh's sinister Hitcher, arriving to tell our hero his time is almost up. Farquhar and Bagnall throw a lot at the wall, but most of it sticks.

[...] It's a genuine ensemble piece and all the cast get their opportunities to make the most of the rich material Farquhar has created for them.

After a season of curiosities, the Everyman Rep finally lets its hair down and simply has boisterous, naughty, joyful fun – and so does the audience.'

★★★★ Liverpool Echo, Jamie McLoughlin:

'By the time the standing ovation had finished rattled around the brickwork of the Everyman ’s cosy performance space, there was no doubt this was the moment the 2018 rep company season had been building towards.

Ambitious in its scale, breathless in its direction, never flagging for a second of a running time of more than two-and-a-half hours, it’s difficult to believe this is the work of a troupe who have also had three other shows to nail in a wafer-thin window of time together.

The Big I Am, Robert Farquhar’s take on Henrik Ibsen’s cumbersome 1867 epic of one man’s extraordinary life is suitably named. This is not a production that shies away in the corner, every beat of its big brash heart commands your attention - and is proud to be cocky about it. Think, if you will, a hardcore Forrest Gump without the schmaltz and with added sweaty bits.

More importantly, this feels like the moment when this year’s company slip into perfect sync with each other.

Nathan McMullen commands the space throughout the opening half as the first of three incarnations of Peer and the one with the most stage time. By rights we should loathe his character as he’s the worst kind of cocky youth, the one who genuinely believes he owns the planet and we’re just lucky to be on it with him. But he’s layered it with enough charm to have you egging him on in his plans to disrupt wedding discos, not to mention the future happiness of the bride and groom.

As ever, mention has to go to Keddy Sutton who is both irresistible and heartbreaking in her portrayal of Peer’s Ma then able to turn in an hilarious take on a Russian businessman in the scenes set in ‘80s Dubai.

The hope of past-war Britain is represented by the sharp suits and big deal of a wedding do, with Zelina Rebeiro giving a beautifully vulnerable performance as Sylvie, the girl who captures Peer’s heart with her singing but always retains the necessary mettle to rebuff his ego and see the scared child beneath.

Golda Rosheuvel couldn’t be more different from her appearance as a female Othello earlier in the season. As a no-nonsense mother of the bride, she shows an amazing comic streak (not to mention someone who knows how to wield a sledgehammer) and even her ensemble parts further down the story are well-pitched, including an asylum inmate with a curious tic involving a woolly hat.

It’s an immersive production in parts. Members of the audience get involved when Peer escapes to the woods and finds himself caught up in hippy culture, with a select few invited to join in the dancing. Come the second half, when Liam Tobin takes over as Peer in the worst debauched gluttony of the 1980s, the high spot of the night comes with a spoof on the TV evangelism which infested American TV in all its overblown excess and people on crutches not being especially cured of their ailments.

As Peer’s life draws to a close, Richard Bremmer represents the third stage of his existence as a sad, lonely man who fears the world - and especially his Sylvie - has forgotten him.

It’s a beautiful ending to a remarkable evening of theatre with so many elements to it they can’t all be checked off in the space allowed to one review. This is one you have to see yourself.'

★★★ The Guardian,Catherine Love:

'The spirit of ensemble, an idea at the heart of Liverpool’s Everyman company, is set loose in the final show of its 2018 season. While it might seem to be about one man, Robert Farquhar’s new take on Peer Gynt is at its best when filling the stage with an eccentric and cacophonous cast of characters.

Farquhar’s reimagining is as wild and unwieldy as Ibsen’s original. It moves restlessly between locations and planes of reality, snapping suddenly from domestic scene to swirling dream world. Director Nick Bagnall meets this challenge with gusto and ingenuity, dynamically shifting the cast of 14 – not to mention an ever-changing series of props and set pieces – across the open, in-the-round space. The frenetic movement of the production mirrors the twitchy impatience of Gynt’s life – a constant, commitment-phobic parade of people and places. It is also an opportunity for the company to show off their impressive versatility, as they whirl through wigs, costumes and accents at a rate of knots.

[...] As a demonstration of what this company can do, it’s an ambitious end to a varied season.'

★★★★ Reviews Hub:

'The cast are outstanding: 14 actors playing various roles throughout – they work their socks and are clearly having a lot of fun with the production. Gynt is played by three different actors at various stages of his life: Nathan McMullen is outstanding at the Younger Gynt, a performance packed with swagger and charisma vital to the role. Liam Tobin as the middle-aged Gynt equally up the task as the loud brash anti-hero crashing into one crisis after another. Finally, Richard Bremmer gives a suitable, reserved performance as the elder, broken Gynt.'

★★★ The Times, Dominic Maxwell:

'There’s plenty to like in this playful, propulsive, astutely strange production by Nick Bagnall. As young Peer, Nathan McMullen has just the right mix of hard-edged swagger and naivety. [...] Its outstanding ensemble of 14 do wonders by switching tones — sad, silly, serrated, surreal — as nimbly as they switch costumes, accents, sexes, eras, continents and instruments.'

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