Review: The Big I Am at Liverpool Everyman *****
So, to the Everyman Rep’s final production of 2018 – and Robert Farquhar’s audacious take on the Peer Gynt legend is quite a finale.
The playwright has taken Ibsen’s mythical magnum opus and turned it in to a captivatingly crazy theatrical ride along the lines of his previous Everyman show, Dead Heavy Fantastic.
With the full Rep company at the disposal of Farquhar and director Nick Bagnall, the pair have created a chaotic carnival of reality and fantasy, populated by a series of larger-than-life characters and grotesques.
Sprawling across the latter half of the 20th century, the story follows the travails of the eponymous Gynt, played, as we move through the decades, by three actors in succession.
Farquhar says he imagined the arrogant anti-hero as a kind-of Lennonesque character, and he sets out his stall by having him born (mythically of course) in the middle of a Liverpool air raid to his salt-of-the-earth Scouse ‘Ma’ – brilliantly played by Keddy Sutton.
Liam Tobin as Peer Gynt. Above: Nathan McMullen and Keddy Sutton. Photos by Gary Carlton
Nathan McMullen takes on the Gynt mantle across a whirligig first half, his Peer a morally ambiguous Liverpool likely lad “full of big thoughts and dark ale”, who delights in creating mayhem as he revels in the “wowness and nowness of the tingle of existence”.
McMullen, adopting a decidedly Lennon vocal delivery, owns the stage as he swaggers provocatively through each scene in a show which itself has real swagger – from a hilarious Northern wedding to a surreal nightmarish sequence in an East End pub (the hall of Richard Bremmer’s mountain king) to a rural hippie kingdom, all populated by a supporting cast of fabulously wrought characters.
A hint of the poignancy to come in the second half emerges at the end of the first, when Gynt, the ever-errant son, returns to his dying Ma’s bedside with more tall tales, but this time to ease her passing.
Liam Tobin then takes up the Gynt mantle as he reinvents himself and marches in to the brash 1980s, a vulgar time of loadsamoney, loads of drugs and the worship of the individual.
Tobin, who has done sterling support work over the Ev’s 2018 season, finally gets his chance to shine here, and he rip-roars in to the action with real relish, first as a yuppie with grand dreams in 80s Dubai, and then as a Belial-tongued American TV evangelist. Say hallelujah for Fat Elvis and the false prophet!
But all the self-mythologising in the world can’t hide the reality that Gynt’s life is empty and devoid of meaning, and as we reach the final chapter the story’s ‘hero’ stops running and descends in to melancholy for lost loves and lost chances.
It’s here The Big I Am, not so big and more, turns inwards and towards a final chapter which sees Richard Bremmer’s aged Gynt making a slow and moving way ‘home’, finding out a few home truths as he searches for some final meaning to it all, with his Peer peering in to his “very average” life as Paul Duckworth’s deathly Rag & Bone Man hovers.
The action – as much due to movement director Kev McCurdy as to director Bagnall - swirls around Molly Lacey Davies and Jocelyn Meall’s cleverly minimal and mobile set, and is well-served by both lighting and sound design.
The Big I Am is wildly inventive, exciting, epic storytelling. Miss it and you’ll regret it.