Review: The Big I Am at Liverpool Everyman

Date: 21/06/2018

How many fucks does it take to reimagine Peer Gynt? Quite a few if Robert Farquhar take on Henrik Ibsen’s interminable Norwegian saga, taken by the scruff of the neck and jacked up with ketamine, is anything to go by. The Big I Am was inspired by the playwright’s memories of The Beatles and Monty Python and those influences are immediately clear in the tea-cosy-and-headscarf aesthetic of Gynt’s family home. There’s something of the young John Lennon and a dash of Alfie Elkins to the youthful Gynt: callous, arrogant but naive too and hard not to like.

Keddy Sutton’s is typically engaging in her role as Gynt’s pinny-wearing Ma, ending up bundled into a kitchen cabinet, as our protagonist heads to a wedding to bed the bride and fight the guests. It’s the sort of thing the Everyman does so well and we might imagine that we know where this is going. And then all hell breaks loose as out protagonist begins a journey through time, space and metaphor.

This chaotic, cosmic Scouse fairytale is brash, lewd and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s no wonder The Big I Am comes with an age restriction. There’s sex, masturbation, drugs and – most horrific of all – audience participation.

The further down the rabbit hole The Big I Am goes, the weirder it gets, like a haunted fairground ride. Having left behind the relatively normal world of the Merseyside kitchen sink, Gynt enters a nightmarish pub, flirts with two-headed tarts, strikes a deal with an East-End geezer and is married off to a creature from the black lagoon.

Still the production throws curveballs as Gynt heads back to his ailing mother’s deathbed and Nathan McMullen enjoys his finest moments as the protagonist’s first incarnation.

Next up, a whistle-stop tour through his next incarnations: a property mogul, a coke-sniffing, prostitute-bothering televangelist, a down-and-out. Liam Tobin has a lot of fun as the middle-aged Gynt but there’s always pathos alongside the swagger.

By the time we see Richard Bremmer as the ailing Peer Gynt, trying to make sense of his life and mortality, Nick Bagnall’s production still has some cards up its sleeve – Paul Duckworth’s rag-and-bone-man is pitched somewhere between Fagin and Mighty Boosh’s sinister Hitcher, arriving to tell our hero his time is almost up. Farquhar and Bagnall throw a lot at the wall, but most of it sticks.

“Sounds like you should be in a play,” characters observe to Gynt and there’s more of a hint of self-reflexivity here. In this exploration of transience and time we might see reflections of the repertory season drawing to an end.

The pace is rather uneven and The Big I Am is less successful as a coherent narrative as it is a series of raucous, irreverent and enjoyable set pieces. But it’s a genuine ensemble piece and all the cast get their opportunities to make the most of the rich material Farquhar has created for them.

After a season of curiosities, the Everyman Rep finally lets its hair down and simply has raucous, naughty, joyful fun – and so does the audience. School’s out for the Summer.

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The Big I Am
Liverpool Everyman
Until 14 July