Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Panic, Barbican Pit Theatre

Review: Panic, Barbican Pit Theatre

Published on Culture Wars, 30.04.2009

Most people, when prescribed masturbation, simply get on with the job in hand. Not so Phelim McDermot, co-artistic director of Improbable Theatre. Instead, a bout of prostratitis – inflammation of the prostrate causing pain during ejaculation – led McDermot to begin research into the great god Pan, the Greek deity of lust. After all, who else could he blame for such blocked pipes? Thus, donning horns, spiked chin and barbed nose – even, at one point, a four foot wicker phallus – he embodies the lascivious buck and proceeds to chase three nymphs around the stage like an antiquated version of Benny Hill.

However, though the programme notes protest otherwise, Panic is not about this satyric divinity. Rather, it is about McDermot himself. Indeed, he is on such personal and confessional form that you almost feel bound by audience-patient confidentially. In addition to his sexual health and history, McDermot guides us through his unrequited loves and mid-life crises before divulging the contents of his personal repository of self-help books, from ‘Household Management for Men’ to ‘Fondling Your Muse’. Alongside this revelation of fragile, fallible self, his manifestation as Pan epitomizes the urges of id and seems an act of ritual humiliation or self-flagellation, almost an exorcism of Freudian neurosis.

Rest assured that this is not to label the piece self-indulgent or merely for McDermot’s own cathartic benefit. Rather, he offers up the privacies of his own inner-life that we might gage something of our own. Or, at least, it seems that way. In fact, Panic is a teasing tangle of truths, half-truths and outright falsities and you’re never quite sure where McDermot ends and the constructed visions of Pan and man begin. Nonetheless, it’s done with such lightness and generosity that one can’t but feel convalescent about one’s own plain, old, un-airbrushed humanity.

With the stage of foreshortened floorboards cloaked in rustling brown paper, I was reminded of van Gogh’s self-portraits. Improbable find the same warmth and big-heartedness in volunteering personal shambles and dejection whilst always retaining control over the identity revealed.

At times, Panic feels burdened by an obligation to survey the figure of Pan independent of McDermot as contemporary vessel. The nymphs (Angela Clerkin, Matilda Leyser and Lucy Foster), for example, are crucial only in relation to McDermot – not least because, one is led to suspect, each has, at one point or other, been the object of his affections – but their individual inner-Pan monologues are unnecessary. Likewise, though no one does sumptuous simplicity better than Improbable, certain visual set-pieces seem superfluous in a patchwork structure that, while adding a piecemeal charm, serves mainly to dilute and muddy the primary thrust.

For all this Panic remains an intelligent, engaging and beautifully open gift of a show that works better as self-portrait than mind-map.

Photograph: Improbable Theatre

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