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The Hanging Man
byBen Clover

I'm sorry but we haven't been properly introduced
--- Death
The Hanging Man
Richard Katz as Edward Braff
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
Improbable Theatre had a mountain of expectation to climb after their international success with Shockheaded Peter and The Hanging Man gets most of the way up it. Improbable's great strength is the energy and imagination of their performance and staging and, when given source material like the Struwwelpeter folk tales, they excel. The Hanging Man is a story of their own devising and they seem a little less comfortable with it.

Edward Braff (Richard Katz) is a young architect who, pressured to repeat an earlier triumph, hangs himself in his half finished cathderal. But Death (Lisa Hammond) refuses to claim him saying she won't let herself be "used" like that without having got to know the person first. Death refuses to do her job until Braff changes his mind about suicide and we quickly see how strange a world without mortality is.

Improbable Theatre really know how to put on a show and in the course of the evening they deploy an arsenal of techniques. There are songs and dancing, slapstick comedy, masks plus the feats of stagecraft for which Improbable are renowned. Richard Katz spends almost the whole show suspended from a noose which he uses to bound around the stage while Death appears from under it before floating high into the rafters. The trouble is some of these effects feel completely gratuitous, particularly one song and the ultra fashionable "Verbatim Theatre" section, and break the momentum of the night. The cast often drop out of character to talk about the devising process which, although entertaining, feels like filler material. This got in the way of my suspension of disbelief and felt as if a magician had showed you how his tricks worked when you were happier not knowing.

Whatever the inconsistencies in tone, the company tear into the piece with such zest that, for the most part, you can't help but be swept along with them. Richard Katz is hilarious on the end of the noose and makes Braff's inability to die a delight to watch. By capturing the tone of a mistreated lover, Lisa Hammond makes Death herself seem human and strangely sympathetic. The rest of the cast are excellent in the assortment of other roles but special mention must go to Catherine Marmier whose exasperated general almost steals the show.

Improbable's whole creative team collaborated on the set and it is sublime. Braff's half finished cathedral is beautifully realised under the Lyric's ornate proscenium. Its beams, stairs and view over an Italian town combine function with elegance and give Improbable's acrobatic cast much to play on.

The evening certainly is a lot of fun even though from such a promising start they seem to run out of steam. Devised pieces like this are always entertaining but they are prone to lose focus if not tightly controlled. Shockheaded Peter, their last production, under whose shadow they labour, was more consistent in this respect and freer of fat. But The Hanging Man is still a unique kind of theatre and at its best creates that special feel you had as a child when hearing a fairy tale . LINK
Shockheaded Peter (DC review ). . . Shockheaded Peter (NY review)

The Hanging Man
Devised, designed and scripted by Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson Julian Crouch

With: Lisa Hammond, Nick Haverson, Richard Katz, Catherine Marmier, Rachael Spence, Ed Woodall, Tim Preece
Co-designer: Phil Edolls
Lighting Designer: Colin Grenfell
Soundscape: Darron L West
Choreography: Steve Kirkham
Costume Designer: Helen McGuire
Producers: Improbable Theatre with the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Lyric Hammersmith. Co-producer: Wexner Centre for the arts at the Ohio State University.
Running time: Ninety minutes with no interval.
Box Office: 08700 500 511
Booking to 21st June 2003
Reviewed by Ben Clover based on 5th June 2003 performance at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith London W6 (Tube Station: Hammersmith)

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