The Legend of the Holy Drinker, VAULT Festival

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by Euan Vincent

Hunchtheatre have a thing for re-inventing forgotten fiction. Their new production, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, provides a 2020 update to Joseph Roth’s 1939 novella of the same name. It mixes the time-honoured, moral fetishes of the original with the political milieu of our Brexit-addled times.

Andreas (Oleg Sidorchik) is an Eastern European migrant gripped by alcoholism and living on the streets. One morning, a miracle happens. A passing banker gives him £1,000 to get him back on his feet, with the proviso that the money be returned to the statue of St Thérèse of Lisieux that had inspired his religious awakening.

The remainder of the cast – Emily Houghton, Ed Davis, Eva Mashtaler and Oliver Bennett – shape-shift brilliantly into a host of characters from Andreas’ past who crop up continually as he ventures to return the money. Special mention goes here to Ed Davies, whose portrayal of the cross-dressing cockney confuses Andreas by warning him to be wary of his wife Kim, before appearing as Kim the following day.

These shenanigans are mixed with live commentary that allows the company to knowingly toy with the idea of adaptation, and pass judgements on the original text. Set changes are handled with the art of suggestion and make heavy use of colourful umbrellas, a concertina and a large plastic sheet. There are also joyful, physical pieces and acts of clowning – like when a hungover Andreas attempts to carry an impossibly high stack of boxes, marked as fragile by the intemperate Kim.

In 1988, Ermanno Olmi won a Golden Lion award for his filmic adaptation of The Legend of the Holy Drinker. Hunchtheatre have created an inventive and funny show, but where Olmi’s focus remained steadfast to the text’s religious and moral moorings, Hunchtheatre’s version loses sight of some of these weightier ideas. This leaves the audience feeling ever so slightly short-changed in what could have been that perfect mix of comedy and pathos.

The Legend of the Holy Drinker runs through 2 February.

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