Progress Theatre takes on A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’ iconic tale of violence, crime and punishment in a dystopian world.
How do you review ultra violence? It’s a rare question we ponder at Progress Theatre ahead of their latest production: A Clockwork Orange.
Anthony Burgess’ 1962 dystopian tale follows a band of sexually violent teenage droogs and their reign of terror across a grim futuristic Britain. Thanks to the controversial 1971 Stanley Kubrick film adaptation, the story of violence, punishment, treatment and reform is well known. But how does that aggression translate to the close quarters of a community theatre?
Fortunately the answer is a very well. Director Matt Tully has created a tight, stark 80-minute production well-adapted for a minimal, small stage.
The most visceral scenes from the film are abridged here, jumping us from a night at the Korova Milk Bar to lead droog Alex’s arrest with only a couple of short stabs at gang violence along the way. The production quickly takes us to his spell in prison, the experimental reconditioning treatment he undergoes and his life as a ‘reformed citizen’. It makes for a moving journey as we ponder Alex’s battle for free will.
The violent acts we do see are just about uncomfortable and awkward enough to make the severity of Alex’s crimes clear. But, importantly, they are also well judged, well choreographed, necessary for the plot and not dragged out too far. A mixed-gender cast also lends balance and interest.
Physicality comes second here to thoughts, expression and speech. Burgess’ novel is remarkable for its inventive use of language and the cast manage ably with this Nadsat, the fictional teenage slang adapted from elements of Russian, cockney and baby talk. Dialogue is verbose and rapid fire, it takes a while to settle in but soon has us gripped. In fact, this focus on the language of violence is somehow more visceral, particularly during the treatment scenes, which are all tell, no show.
At the centre of the Nadsat world, Josh Boden is a lean, engaging and energetic Alex. His expressive facial ticks leaves us feeling uncomfortably sympathetic towards the confused, ‘cured’ bootlicker the teen becomes.
The rest of the cast are notable for their impressive versatility, switching up roles as each scene demands. Peter Cook thunders as the government minister of the interior, then raises chuckles as Alex’s dour father, while Katie Moreton is both humorous as Alex’s mother and imposing as his school teacher, Mr Deltoid.
Debarshi Bandyopadhyay as the prison chaplain stands out with passionate delivery, asking Alex to question the morality of his choices, or lack of choices. He also lends a welcome comic touch to the proceedings, with the odd well-timed swig from a hip flask.
It pairs well with a number of welcome moments of light relief throughout, particularly during the prison scenes, which lift the mood. A modern, cheeky score also keeps things light, blending Alex’s beloved Beethoven with Eminem, ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars, and, slightly incongruously, ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’, from Annie.
As well as the violence, Kubrick’s film was notable for its striking visual style. And this is a similarly stylish production, all monochrome and sharp angles. Costumes are striking, with black and white checked jackets and lace up boots creating a menacing gang identity, with a hint of jester playfulness nodding to the young age and immaturity of the droogs.
In fact, the only real bum note is a surprising moment of partial female nudity towards the end of the second half. Placed just at the point where we feel the violence and exploitation is behind us, it feels positioned mainly to be shocking rather than propel the story. While the visual of Alex transformed from rapist to love struck puppy at the sight of a woman is a strong one, the nudity isn’t really necessary to get us there.
Surprisingly for a play about ultra violence, Progress Theatre has managed to make the production humorous, enjoyable and thought provoking without being disturbing. Appropriately, this run of A Clockwork Orange is still a challenging piece, bringing us face-to-face with some of the cruellest elements of humanity. It asks us to question the meaning of freedom of choice, ethics, moral codes and peer pressure, but leaves us uplifted.
A Clockwork Orange is at The Progress Theatre from Monday 19 February 24 February 2018. Performances at 7.45pm, matinée on 24 February at 2.30pm. £12. Buy tickets
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.