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Review: House Mother Normal

Review: House Mother Normal

Review: House Mother Normal cover photo on Stagedoor

Theatre-maker Tim Crouch has always been interested in form, as demonstrated in works such as My Arm and An Oak Tree. Now, he's joined forces with rural touring company New Perspectives, which under artistic director Jack McNamara has been quietly radical, for this installation version of BS Johnson’s experimental novel, House Mother Normal.

Staged as part of the Brighton Festival, Johnson’s novel explores the inner lives of eight elderly residents and their carer in a residential home. The novel allocates 21 pages exactly to each of them. Crouch’s installation clocks in at a neat 42 minutes, a natty point magnified by the fact that this is a piece in which time is fluid, and past and present slip and slide into each other in a babble of words as minds disintegrate. “Worse times are coming,” is the ominous message.

Like much work at the moment, this is available both in digital form, and in an in-person installation that can be viewed later in the month, but I imagine that both are equally rewarding if equally challenging. This is not an easy watch, but it is a rewarding one. You need a quiet space and total concentration to get the most from a show in which nine talking heads mutter and mummer in a chorus of voices, and in which consideration of lamb chops is given as much weight as first love and bestiality. There is absolute precision in the chaos.

Johnson was a friend and admirer of Samuel Beckett and it shows, although there are times when there are hints of Under Milk Wood too, and a nod perhaps to Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The mother figure here is one of appalling manipulativeness who orchestrates her charges – all “orphans in reverse” left without the protection of relatives in old age – like a conductor. The twitcher is her baton. It’s a dark, sinister, sad piece, exquisitely performed and produced. But one that leaves a shiver behind.

House Mother Normal is available online until 31st May, as part of Brighton Festival. Watch it here.

Image: Robert Day

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Lyn Gardner

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