wed 08/12/2021

Brian and Roger: A Highly Offensive Play, Menier Chocolate Factory review - not for the squeamish | reviews, news & interviews

Brian and Roger: A Highly Offensive Play, Menier Chocolate Factory review - not for the squeamish

Brian and Roger: A Highly Offensive Play, Menier Chocolate Factory review - not for the squeamish

The Menier opens its new second stage with this podcast-turned-play

On the (silk) road: Simon Lipkin and Dan Skinner in 'Brian and Roger: A Highly Offensive Play'Nobby Clark

What counts as offensive in these days of cancel culture? Ham-fisted pronoun usage? Culturally appropriated hairstyles?

To remind us that other options are still available, the Menier’s new space, the Mixing Room, is staging a world premiere of a two-hander choc-full of old-school profanities, grotesquerie and gore: Brian & Roger, which comes with the subtitle A Highly Offensive Play and, indeed, it often is offensive. Don’t go if the c-word bothers you.

Based on a podcast sitcom created almost accidentally, it seems, when the actors Harry Peacock and Dan Skinner started improvising chats between the divorced dads of the title, it has now been plumped up into a play, with Simon Lipkin taking over from Peacock as Brian (your basic bastard) and Skinner still playing the hapless Roger. I suspect Roger’s name in itself is a joke, as he now sleeps on an old lady’s sofa and never gets close to a sexual encounter, even with the donkey named after his ex-wife with which he travels through the mountains of the old Silk Road in China. 

Brian & RogerHang on: The Silk Road? Bestial sex? It’s a far cry from West Ruislip and Sutton Coldfield, the world of Brian & Roger the podcast. In its place is terrain that Peacock and Skinner say they deliberately wanted so as to make their creation “epic”. Now Brian and Roger go on adventures of mounting sexual depravity and criminality involving Nicolae Ceausescu’s grandson, jet-setting criminals, lashings of A-list drugs and a dodgy project to build an autobahn in rural China.

Fans of the podcast may well take this bigging up in their stride. The basic “sit” hasn’t changed, after all. The play’s Brian is, as ever, a callous schemer on the make, whose plans require Roger to be an unpaid stooge subjected to extreme misery and pain. Candide-like, Roger always tries to see the sunny side of his miserable lot, the prime source of the piece’s laughs. And the story is still told via the phone messages the two leave each other, a fruitful device that encourages us to read between the lines and focus on what’s not being said -- Brian’s cruelty to Roger, Roger’s unspoken sadness.

The best bits duly exploit this potential. Roger’s reports on how Brian’s plans have disastrously misfired, in particular, are masterpieces of understatement; you hear the gears of his brain crunching as he tries to convey the horror of what has just happened, without overtly complaining. At the climax of an episode that leaves him on the loo with his semi-naked elderly landlady in his semi-naked lap, all he can muster is: “It’s not where I want to be in my life.” Skinner is the accomplished character comedian behind the TV personality “Angelos Epithemiou”, and he lands this line to roars of approval. He is the strongest suit in the play’s hand, with pitch perfect, oddly delicate comic timing; the show would merit a lower star rating without him.

Brian’s cod manager-speak has its moments too: “An opportunity has presented itself” in his mouth actually means, “I am about to manipulate you into going on a perilous journey that will leave you in a coma while I do drugs and have sex with monkeys…” But the character has been taken way over the top and has none of the jaundiced weariness of Peacock’s podcast Brian. He’s an exhausting presence for a full 90 minutes.

So although this is a lively evening, deftly directed by David Babani to use his venue’s small basement space to its full potential, its raucous ambitions aren’t a perfect fit for its characters' comic potential. Taken from page to stage, the script inevitably bulks up with sight gags, some of them undoubtedly striking, especially video designer Timothy Bird’s witty animated projections on the back wall, which provide nifty backdrops for the ever-shifting action. But as the plot is steered to wilder and wilder shores, we seem to be left with an X-rated knockabout cartoon.

It must have been fun for the writers to come up with outrageous stunts such as Brian popping out of a wall in a bondage harness or Roger running onstage festooned in (mercifully fake) items of offal, but these are elements from a comedy world ruled by an increasingly numbing absurdism. Post curtain-call, a coda attempts to put Brian and Roger’s skewed relationship back on its original comic track, but will they really return to West Ruislip after this?

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