London Theater Review: ‘Golem’ at the Young Vic

With:
Esme Appleton; Will Close; Lillian Henley; Rose Robinson; Shamira Turner; Ben Whitehead.

The U.K. theater company 1927 has a knack for prescience. The troupe’s last show, “The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets,” preempted the London riots. Now, days after Stephen Hawking warned that artificial intelligence might be the ruin of humanity, up they pop suggesting that — oops, too late — it already is. Using their distinctive blend of live-action and animation, given a punkish twist and an aburdist sensibility, 1927 turn the golem myth of clay-come-to-life into an arch satire on consumer capitalism in “Golem.” Each of us, they argue, has our own personal, pocket-sized golem already: our smartphone.

Seven years after emerging at the Edinburgh Fringe, the young British outfit is one of the most distinctive troupes in the world. They make staged cartoons of sorts, set to Lillian Henley’s silent movie style soundtracks. Illustrating Susan Andrade’s wicked poetic narratives, actors interact with Paul Barritt’s beguiling animations, walking on the spot as bustling backdrops whizz past, or lending their heads to animated bodies. It’s unfailingly delightful: simple, but witty and waggish.

Billed as an adaptation of Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel, “Golem” actually fashions a plot of its own. A gawky, bashful young menial, Robert Pattison (Shamira Turner), with an odor of “unwashed hair and mathematics,” gets his own clay-helper and, almost immediately, finds himself forging ahead of his peers.

This golem — a lumpen clay figurine seen in stop-motion — fights off Robert’s detractors, speeds through his work at the Binary Back Up Department and offers advice on everything from fashion to romance. Before long, Robert’s a better version of himself — promoted, well-dressed and coupled-up — and soon, everyone’s got themselves a golem. Cue an upgrade: Golem 2 — smaller, speedier and all the more insistent. “Move with the times,” the ads cry, “or you’ll be left behind.”

What remains of Meyrink’s novel is the sense of a city’s sprawl. This one slowly loses its flavor, as independent shops fall to vast chains (Go Mobile, Go Tees, Go Away) and scuzzy dive bars become shameless strip emporiums. As data dictates every life choice, ubiquity starts to rule and the city’s every shade of beige gets whitewashed by the monochrome yellow of Go Industries.

OK, it’s not the sort of satirical genius to spark a revolution, but Andrade skewers the details well with a delicious dottiness to boot. Robert uses a dating site that turns lovers into commodities, as consumerism sells you a lifestyle and preys on your insecurities. In opposition is Robert’s sister Annie (Esme Appleton), lead-singer of a punk band made up of misfits so meek they daren’t even ask one another out. (“This song,” they squeal, “will ruin your Christmas.”)

Annie’s revolution comes to nothing — as befits a system malleable enough to offer dissent as another consumer choice — but Barritt clearly takes their side. His animations have the cut-and-paste coarseness of teenage fanzines. Transitions are slow though and, on top Andrade’s eye for a surreal tangent (a heartbroken French singer named Les Miserables, for instance), “Golem” can feel sluggish. Prescient they might be, but 1927 still haven’t mastered timing.

London Theater Review: 'Golem' at the Young Vic

Young Vic, London; 400 seats; £35 ($55) top. Opened, reviewed Dec 12, 2014. Running time: 1 HOUR 30 MIN.

Production: A 1927, Salzburg Festival, Théâtre de la Ville Paris and Young Vic co-production of a play in one act by Suzanne Andrade and 1927.

Creative: Animation, Paul Barritt; Music by Lillian Henley; Directed by Suzanne Andrade; Design, Esme Appleton; sound, Laurence Owen; costume design, Sarah Munro.

Cast: Esme Appleton; Will Close; Lillian Henley; Rose Robinson; Shamira Turner; Ben Whitehead.

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