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A Visit to Unusual, Magical ‘Lane’

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

“70 Hill Lane,” an unexpectedly magical show from the 2-year-old British troupe Improbable Theatre, begins with a man fashioning a puppet out of some crumpled-up newspaper. At first, it’s difficult to believe in something as absurdly crude as a newspaper puppet. But in just a little while, this sheet of ink-stained paper becomes not only a viable figurine but a beloved grandmother, hooked up to an IV, taking her final few precious breaths in the world.

The show, which opened Sunday at the La Jolla Playhouse’s smaller Forum Theatre, is about as low-tech a puppet show as you will find. The figurines (you can barely call them puppets) make only occasional appearances. “Hill Lane” is a story, presented as an autobiographical monologue, told by Phelim McDermott. The actor recounts how a poltergeist invaded his family home one day when his parents were out. More mischievous spirit than monstrous (this is Hill Lane, Manchester, not Hull House), “Polty” turned over some furniture and threw some things about. His visit endowed McDermott with an eye for life’s hidden properties, such as the possibilities for storytelling using only a few sheets of newspaper and a couple of dozen rolls of clear tape. What he does with these things is astonishing.

With the help of two talented all-purpose actors, Steven Tiplady and Guy Dartnell, and Colin Grenfell’s evocative lighting, McDermott rebuilds his childhood home. He whisks out his roll of tape and--phlett!--noisily stretches it to fashion the ghostly outline of a ceiling at the top of four poles. This space will stand for both the “now"--a modest apartment in Leeds, where McDermott deals with avoiding work, an unfaithful ex-"beloved” and the search for a new one--and the “then"--a dying grandmother, a house in which people rarely speak to each other, and one unforgettable visitation.

On the day of Polty’s visit, he threw things around the room, from a point just outside McDermott’s peripheral vision. But this extraordinary incident is given not much more significance than others in McDermott’s life, such as witnessing the death of a fox that’s been hit by a car, or visiting his grandmother for the last time in an old-age home, or finding it impossible to put a shade back on a hanging light fixture. These are all important matters, McDermott believes, in dealing with the physical world around us.

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In his extended battle with the lampshade, McDermott makes clear he respects and fears even the most mundane aspects of the physical world. Like writer Nicholson Baker, he notices objects most of us overlook, describing in precise detail the “horrible bits dripping off” the foam underneath his sofa cushion.

And in the course of telling his story of his childhood and adulthood, he reacquaints us with untutored ways of looking at the world, doing so in ways completely unexpected and mercifully free of saccharine, childlike wonder. When he tells the story of his grandmother’s death using a newspaper puppet and some tape to represent two IVs, he reminds us that we are creatures possessed with so much spirit that we can project that spirit onto almost anything.

In demeanor, McDermott is a bit of the nerd, endearing, unassuming and vaguely stoop-shouldered. He has an overall comical quality, in the manner of Rick Moranis, say, or Ben Stiller. So when he unexpectedly turns intensely serious, he’s like a singer who’s been goofing around and startles you by singing a bar with a powerful, pitch-perfect voice. He has acting chops he displays only occasionally, and to great effect.

One such scene finds him curled up in a fetal position on a table--a child asleep in a bed. As he dozes, his two henchman cover him, with some obvious difficulty, under a sheet of tape. While still curled up, McDermott opens intense eyes and tells us he is deep in a terrifying childhood dream, a place that has no ceiling, no floor and is simply a void, a world of no matter. This is the dream of a child comprehending death and nothingness for the first time, a powerful and unforgettable experience, connected to or inspired by the visit of the poltergeist. He sits up, covered in a sticky membrane of tape, heaving to free himself of it. This is remarkable theater and a priceless, perfect metaphor for psychic terror and the way it sticks to us even after we find our way out of it.

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One gets the feeling finally that McDermott does believe he encountered a poltergeist one day long ago. But the supernatural element is not the most important one in this show. McDermott describes “70 Hill Lane” as “a house I once lived in, that now lives in me.” The house on Hill Lane is the archetypal childhood home, the place in which we first contemplate death and have our first encounter with the spirit inside of us.

*

* “Improbable Theatre’s 70 Hill Lane,” La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 23. $21-$39. (619) 550-1010. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

A La Jolla Playhouse production. With: Guy Dartnell, Phelim McDermott, Steve Tiplady. Written by Phelim McDermott. With additional material by Guy Dartnell and Steve Tiplady. Directed by Lee Simpson. Sets Julian Crouch. Light design and production management Colin Grenfell. Music composed and performed by Ben Park. Producer Nick Sweeting. Stage manager Heather Fields.

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