Written by David Spicer
Directed by Michael Fentiman
Starring Tom Bennett, Julian Bleach, Stephen Boxer, Joel Fry, Gwyneth Keyworth and Jeff Rawle
At Park Theatre, London, until February 11th, 2017
by Richard Hamer
A new, original production at the Finsbury Park Theatre, Raising Martha is a frequently surreal, often memorable but sadly uneven dark comedy. With a plot that includes grave robbing, kidnapping, drugs, toad licking, animal rights, hallucinatory episodes and extra-marital affairs, Raising Martha is a production generous in ideas, but suffering from a paucity of focus: A grab-bag of unexpected delights and frustrating half-thoughts.
Principally, the story deals with two partnerships: There’s Gerry and Roger, a toad-farm owner and his brother, who are being blackmailed by animal rights activists for the return of the recently exhumed remains of their dead mother. And there’s Jago and Marc, the hapless duo that are doing the blackmailing.
Events quickly escalate, and – as can be expected – nothing is what it seems. Double-crosses abound, and buried secrets soon come rushing to the surface. In the main, Raising Martha is reminiscent of The Ladykillers, Fargo or The Trouble with Harry: Small-town crime spiralling out of control. The classic, dark-comedy farce.
And it is in this – inevitable – comparison that Raising Martha disappoints the most. There is little sense of intricacy to its plotting; that interweaving of events, slowly building to an inevitable and violent conclusion. Instead it simply – continually – ‘adds ideas’; stacking them mercilessly on top of each other, muddling the cleanliness of its premise under a mountain of what can only be described as stuff.
Many of them are wonderful in isolation: The demented, drug-fuelled hallucinations. The long, meandering rants on the nature of human and animal rights. Writer David Spicer’s almost aggressive fixation with turning every conversation towards some kind of excruciating pun (which thankfully hit way more than they miss). But all together, much of it serves only to confuse; the audience left looking for a single, solid thread to hang on to.
Performances are generally strong, though occasionally shouty. Tom Bennett and Joel Fry – as animal rights activists cum grave robbers Marc and Jago – are good fun as comedic leads. Bennett, in particular, has some subtle, endearing quality that makes his every scene highly watchable. Anyone who saw his recent, incredible performance in Love & Friendship can’t help but be a little disappointed he wasn’t given more to do. The rest of the cast perform ably, though there is a sense they too are struggling under the weight of the stories meandering plotting, its occasionally thin and inconsistent characterization.
There is much to recommend in Raising Martha’s rich well of ideas, clever staging and “I never thought I’d see that in the theatre” moments. But one can’t help but find it simultaneously over- and under-cooked: A production stuffed with originality, but without a clear enough picture of what to do with it all. Nonetheless, we look forward to seeing what David Spicer might do next, with greater focus, but with the same inventive spirit and good ear for (terrible) puns.