When you think of the funfair, you think of an assault on the senses - the sights, the colours, the smells, the noise, the surreal atmosphere of fun and laughter. And although this adaptation of Ödön von Horváth's 1932 play Kasimir and Karoline certainly has all of these ingredients, at the end of the piece I wasn't quite sure what I was meant to be taking away from it.
The original is set at the Munich Oktoberfest in Depression-hit 1929, but Simon Stephens's 21st century update relocates the action to a fairground and renames the title characters Cash and Caroline. There's no denying that Mike Gunning's lighting and Ti Green's set design are sumptuously effective, managing to be original and creative despite the over-familiar tropes and iconography of the setting. The huge, red pleated curtain acts as a cyclorama against which silhouettes are cast, and this provides some memorable visual moments, such as the one-horse merry-go-round, and the highly impressive zoetrope.
The structural grandeur of a real funfair is translated well onto the stage: there's a rollercoaster which you don't actually see, but thanks to the magic of theatre and the imaginative manipulation of the set and the actors' performances, you think you've seen it!
Something I did find a little out of kilter with the rest of the play - which is essentially about the breakdown of a relationship at the funfair and what subsequently happens to Cash and Caroline as they drift ever further apart - was the inclusion of a menagerie of circus-type freaks, toward the end of Act 1. They were superfluous to the plot - a ringmaster and his coterie of oddities, from a hairy woman to a man with two heads. It wasn't the execution of these characters and scenes which puzzled me - indeed, Cici Howells had a beautiful singing voice, and the man who could pull his bottom lip over his nose was an ace on the triangle - but their sudden presence at the close of Act 1 just smacked of trying to remind the audience of where they were, when there really was no need to shoehorn them in. It just seemed a jolt to have them there when they perform no other narrative function. They looked and sounded fantastic. I just don't know what the point was: they were more freak show than funfair.
The play centres on Cash, who loses his job as a chauffeur but forces girlfriend Caroline away by assuming she won't want to be with him any longer if he's out of a job. This is obviously Cash trying to make the break before he is broken by another, trying to head the pain off at the pass, but sweet Caroline doesn't see it that way and is upset that she is pushed away on Cash's misguided assumption. Ben Batt makes for a rugged, robust, melancholic Cash, decked out in brown leather jacket and string vest, while Katie Moore is beautifully vulnerable and wide-eyed as Caroline, whose tentaive steps into a new world of being "on the market" makes for unpalatable and unsettling viewing.
The stand-out performance for me was Victoria Gee as Esther, the downtrodden girlfriend of Cash's slimy, misogynist "bezzie mate" Frankie. Esther is obviously a sympathy figure and Gee translates her vulnerability, yet steely determination not to carry on being the victim, with real insight and sensitivity. The scene where Frankie assaults Esther with a pint is shocking, and a real turning point both for the character and the audience.
Also enjoyable is Rhodri Meilir as Johnny Chase, whose pursuit of the newly available Caroline starts off as quite sweet and innocent, but by the end I felt there was an undercurrent of danger or seediness infecting the character. It is indicative of how most of the characters are pretty unlikeable, creepy or simply downright unpleasant.
Ultimately I found The Funfair to be an awful lot of impressive style over substance. The parallels Stephens draws between Depression-era Germany and 21st century Britain in the publicity literature are a little forced, and the characters are mostly drawn in broad strokes. Esther is The Victim, Cash is the Wounded Hero, Caroline is the Innocent, Smoke and Spear are the Monsters and Frankie is the Bad Guy. It'd be harsh to say the characters are two-dimensional, but they fall a little short of a full third dimension. This cannot be the fault of the cast; perhaps the fault lies in the source material.
The Funfair looks and sounds great - the live band cracking out songs by Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran is lovely, evocative stuff - but the story left me a little unfulfilled. I knew what it was about, but I wasn't really sure what it was supposed to mean. Maybe I missed something, in which case the fault maybe lies in the translation of the text.
Either way, if nothing else, I could have listened to Juanita the Singing Gorilla crooning Love Letters for a bit longer, even if I'm just not sure why...
Writer: Ödön von Horváth, adapted by Simon Stephens
Director: Walter Meierjohann
Cast: Ian Bartholomew (Billy Smoke); Ben Batt (Cash); Kate Dobson (Maria); Victoria Gee (Esther); Barbara Hockaday (Musician); Sally Hodgkiss (Elli); Cici Howells (Juanita, Musician); Chris Jack (Ringmaster, Nurse); James Lusted (Narrator, Tiny); Rhodri Meilir (John Chase); Katie Moore (Caroline); Max Runham (Little Joseph, Musician); Michael Ryan (Frankie Marr); Christopher Wright (David Spear); Laura Betts, Elliot Brown, Marcus Christopherson, Danielle Dawson, Emma Fernell, Lucy Hird, Jade Marvin, Molly McGlynn, Evelyn Roberts, Eleanor Snowdon (community ensemble company)
Performed at Home, Manchester, May 14 to June 13, 2015. Performance reviewed: May 28, 2015.
Note: Home's current exhibition - The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things - is in part inspired by Kasimir and Karoline, and can be seen until July 26, 2015.
The Funfair on Home website (retrieved Jun 1, 2015)
Video of cast and crew discussing Simon Stephens's adaptation (retrieved Jun 1, 2015)
The Funfair trailer (retrieved June 1, 2015)