Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Mad Man, Drum Theatre

Review: Mad Man, Drum Theatre

Published in the Guardian, 26.03.2014

Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman is a journal in which dates give way, dogs talk and the writer, a pen-pushing civil servant named Poprishchin (here called Pushpin), comes to believe himself the king of Spain.

Chris Goode’s freeform staging is just as singular. Cartoonish and careering, it constantly bursts its frame with extended dance sequences and scripted meta-theatrics. At one point, it gets stuck on repeat for days and, though the stubborn refusal to adhere to conventional, satisfying rhythms can be frustrating, the resulting unpredictability is thrilling and fitting.

It all hangs off Lucy Ellinson’s Pushpin, an extraordinary creation who somehow captures many different forms and facets of madness in a single, coherent character. Her windswept Warhol wig implies an artist ahead of his time; her ill-fitting suit, a blindness to outward appearances; regular linguistic bungles – “wool the pull over my eyes” – a mealy-mouthed inability to communicate with others. Pushpin is out of step – and knows it. In Janet Bird’s dizzying wood-panelled office, colleagues work steadily and smoothly. Nigel Barrett’s bullish boss just mucks about: stamping forms blindfold, playing with pencils. Pushpin flusters in late, the perennial outsider, clutching yet another new umbrella, unable to work out the secret to the others’ collected confidence. Is there a script he’s not seen? An orgy to which he’s not invited?

Ellinson’s elastic expressions, so reminiscent of the Muppets’ Beaker, betray a rising panic and her ensuing self-consciousness completes a vicious circle. Pushpin spirals. Madness takes hold. And, in madness, with the confidence that befits a monarch, Pushpin takes control, directing the show from within.

It’s a compelling portrait of outsidership cowed by the crowds. Goode carries on where Gogol’s first-person account has to stop, with Pushpin sectioned and subjected to excruciating treatments. The state regains its grip on reality and Pushpin is left brittle and bloodshot: a man with no hope whatsoever of fitting back in.

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