THEATRE REVIEW: ‘GOD!’ by Woody Allen at the Effra Social

By Lucy Binnersley 

(from L to R): Doris Levine: Polly Seymour; Hepatitis: James Castle; Guard:  James Woodward; Phidipedes: Richard Brent (kneeling); King: Ian McAuliffe
(from L to R): Doris Levine: Polly Seymour; Hepatitis: James Castle; Guard: James Woodward; Phidipedes: Richard Brent (kneeling); King: Ian McAuliffe

Gracing the stage at Brixton’s Effra Social last week was Woody Allen’s 1975 philosophical comedy, ‘God!‘ The production ran over three evenings and showed Allen to be the cheeky child of theatre; fearlessly turning life’s big questions into self deprecating absurdities. Set in 500 BC Athens we meet two Greek thespians, neurotic playwright Hepatitis and reluctant leading man Diabetes. While desperately distracted from their search of how to conclude their play, they become caught in an existential dance of post-modern pontifications over God’s existence. Further complications arise when the men discover they are merely characters in a play-within-a-play and begin to doubt their own free will. Think Jim Carey in ‘The Truman Show’. In a toga. While the play tackles dilemmas worthy of Sartre or Camus — what is real? What happens when we die? Is there a god? — the slapsticky firestorm of a script is classic Woody Allen, filled with clever asides, unexpected character cameos (including Allen himself and Blanche DuBois) and offbeat observations on religion, politics…and where to get the best Chinese takeout.

Masterfully steering the deliciously light-hearted and chaotic production through the plot’s twists and turns (or should that be Allen’s neuroses), is the director Tim de Vere Green, producer Jen Svrcek and the 15-strong cast, members of newly-formed, Brixton-based amateur dramatics group “Dig Deeper”. But do not let their amateur status fool you. They handle Allen’s frantic philosophising with commendable ease. The leading actors’ comical yet subtle performances are well pitched and supported by boisterous interjections from the chorus. It is a confident production which frequently subverts and criss-crosses theatre norms and boundaries For there are no rules in this play.

With clever staging adding another layer of humour to this wickedly funny play the audience is constantly engaged and on its toes (not literally, thankfully) looking for the next surprise or even taunt. Ironic nudges to Shakespeare’s phrase ‘All the world’s a stage’; pervade the production; for as the audience we are expected to be players and share in the ensemble fun of this production, which at times sees a nomadic Blanche Dubois emerge inexplicably from the wings, and Hepatitis and Diabetes mingle among the audience. High praise needs to be given to the comic timing of both the director and the actors. As a group they work seamlessly together; evident by their spot-on choreography and tight and punchy execution. This shifting human set fuels the production’s rapid pace and underscores the play’s prevailing air of lunacy.

Fresh, witty and innovative, ‘God!’ is an awful lot of flimsy fun and an example of Allen’s infectious self-deprecating humour at its finest. Director De Vere Green really “gets” the script; a frustratingly brilliant and scatty that undulates around a proper structure. Imagine a 3am chat with a really, really, really drunken friend about the meaning of life (we’ve all been there) and you come close to imagining the loveable absurdity of this script. At heart, the play is an unapologetic nostalgic return to the old; featuring all those familiar Allen elements – writer’s block, paranoia, bathos, Greek gods, sex with women who are strictly out of his league. And yet with the recent release and popularity of his 2013 film Blue Jasmine, the mastery and omnipotence of Woody Allen seems still as irreverent as ever. De Vere Green, without difficulty it seems, has created a visionary masterpiece, innovatively stamping his own label across Allen’s work. The boundaries between playwright, director, actor and audience are excruciatingly malleable in this production; perfectly capturing how whoever we are, maybe we all want to play at being God.

Here’s to hoping that the Effra Social, a fittingly quirky and unusual venue for this convention-breaking play, will continue to stage such funny and offbeat productions.