Fat Man, The Vaults, SE1

reviewed for The Times, 4 February 2015

Martin Bonger in Fat Man

Martin Bonger in Fat Man


Four star_rating

Everyone from Monteverdi to Margaret Atwood has tried their hand at transmuting the myth of Orpheus, said to be the greatest singer in Greece but more famous for failing to get his wife back from the underworld. Martin Bonger’s monologue gives us Orpheus as a washed-up rock star sharing his self-loathing on the comedy circuit. He tells the story of his loss each night, reliving his romance with Eurydice, but it doesn’t seem to be helping him process much. And to prove it his waist keeps expanding — hence our title — owing to a nasty dependency on grief-allaying doughnuts.

This is a story about grief, yes, but also about celebrity. Orpheus was once a star — walking into his biggest concerts, he tells us, he became a god — but he’s all too aware now that it’s we the audience who have become gods, sitting silent, judging, coldly deciding his fate. And under the dank railway arches that make up the Vaults in south London we’re already in the underworld. It’s the perfect place for a career to die, but while Orpheus may be so, so over, Bonger’s own star looks firmly in the ascent.

Bonger’s performance is as gentle as it gets — vulnerable, witty, each of the five stages of grief jostling for space on his wide expressive features. Except, of course, acceptance. There’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and we the audience, the gods, are the target of it all. Yet you’re unlikely to leave the Vaults in as bad a state as Orpheus. There’s something deeply uplifting about seeing an ancient love story so endure. As always, the singer suffers for our delight.

Sure Bonger’s script flirts with the occasional cliché. And you’ll have to make up your own mind about the coup de grâce that subverts his story’s expected end, but it’s unlikely to convince everyone. Yet sooner or later this Orpheus wins everyone over. It’s heartening to find an adaptation that for once doesn’t spoonfeed a modern audience — Bonger expects a basic level of classical knowledge, which leaves his references subtle, knowing. “Through the crowds, I followed her — ironic, huh?” says Orpheus of first meeting Eurydice. For theatre like this, I’d follow Bonger to the ends of the earth.