The introductory number to Ken Hill’s “The Invisible Man” is a hymn to 1904. That’s the year in which this tale, of a mysterious bandaged man who appears (only just) in a small Sussex village, is set. But 1904 is evoked more vividly than director Ian Talbot intends – in that his corny but spirited production, and most of Hill’s jokes, might be more at home there. Those in the mood for a festive pantomime, with added low-level chills and some tingly trompes l’oeil from illusionist Paul Kieve, will be well satisfied. But if you’re after a thoughtful or sophisticated take on H.G. Wells’ classic novella – well, you won’t know where to look.
Unlike the Menier’s “Sweet Charity” and “La Cage aux Folles,” this knockabout revival is unlikely to reach the West End. But that’s not the only badge of success – and what the show lacks in quality, it amply supplies in bonhomie. The style is dictated by Hill’s framing device, which presents the Invisible Man story as a dramatic entertainment at an Edwardian music hall. Designer Paul Farnsworth suggests the village of Iping and its surrounds with a series of retracting painted screens. In front of these rudimentary backdrops, Gary Wilmot’s jaunty tramp Marvel narrates the events that unfold when see-through scientist Griffin (John Gordon Sinclair) takes up lodging at Mrs. Hall’s inn, and launches his demented plan to slaughter the world’s tyrants and assume global power to his invisible self.
Hill’s 1991 revamp of Wells becomes less interesting when Griffin is revealed to be just another megalomaniac. Until that point, Gordon Sinclair’s hissing loner has been an ambiguous figure; an antihero, even. After all, Hill’s script – following the fashion of his mentor, dissenting 1960’s director Joan Littlewood – is as suspicious as Griffin is of traditional authorities. His village policeman, Jaffers (Teddy Kempner), is corrupt and cowardly. And the village aristocrat, Squire Burdock (Jo Stone-Fewings), is, at least initially, a moonstruck buffoon.
The anti-establishment worldview is confined to wisecracks, though, and certainly doesn’t extend to any theatrical radicalism. The show’s prevailing style is slapstick and ripe ham-acting, which stays just the right side of bearable thanks to a 10-strong cast whose enjoyment is infectious. (Natalie Casey as the maid Millie is a particular pleasure.) Proceedings are never funnier than when the actors simulate mortal combat with their transparent assailant – or, in other words, fight with themselves. Elsewhere, the Invisible Man’s presence is evoked through often creaky but always beguiling illusions: knives hovering at throats, a chest of drawers searched by unseen hands and Griffin unravelling his swaddled face to reveal an empty void, eerily blowing smoke from a lit cigarette. Talbot’s revival is as shallow as its two-dimensional backdrops – but it’s not without the occasional thrill.