The Theatreguide.London Review
Bush Theatre Spring 2007; Trafalgar Studios Summer 2007
Audiences were charmed by Simon Bent's comedy at its debut at the fringe Bush Theatre and continue to enjoy it in its transfer to the Trafalgar Studios, so this is going to be a bit of a minority report.
While I enjoyed the play's warm humour, it did not blind me to several serious flaws that kept it from complete success.
Based on a Norwegian film based on a Norwegian play based on a Norwegian novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen, Elling tells of two men released from a mental institution as not-mad-enough-to-stay, who are now faced with the daunting task of functioning in the real world.
Prissy, repressed Elling and simple, good-natured Kjell Bjarne were so at home in the institutional world that independence is overwhelming. Guided and, if necessary, bullied by their social worker, they sometimes seem to take one step backward for each one forward. And yet they do slowly find their way toward something resembling normalcy.
Kjell Bjarne finds having a room of his own lonely, while the agoraphobic Elling is overpowered by a walk down the street. Both are frightened of the telephone, though they do discover that Kjell Bjarne's sexual frustrations can be assuaged by the right premium-rate numbers.
Slowly, almost accidentally, they begin to make small progress. One meets a woman and the other makes a friend. One finds a vocation and the other rediscovers skills he forgot he had.
Newly motivated, they do things that had frightened them before, and each small victory increases their courage.
The play is frequently very funny and often quite heart-warming. So why didn't it work for me as fully as it did for many around me?
For one thing, it outstays its welcome. There are several logical ending points, around the time they each make outside friends - and, indeed, the audience applauded at the end of a couple of scenes that seemed to be the end of the play.
But instead it lingers on at least a half-hour too long, offering nothing new beyond a couple of minor plot points,and thus dissipates its energy and effect.
It may be this leisureliness that also allows the character of Elling, the prissy one, to lose his attractiveness. While Kjell Bjarne remains an amiable lunk throughout, Elling is made to be bossy and critical, imposing his own neuroses on his roommate so the other guy has to bear a double burden.
Imagine The Odd Couple - and yes, the spirit of Neil Simon does haunt this play - in which Oscar didn't fight back and Felix bossed him around mercilessly, and you'll see how the humour here keeps going sour.
It doesn't help that John Simm's portrayal of Elling leans far too heavily on Kenneth Williams (with a touch of Alan Bennett's moderating warmth), a cartoon portrayal that wears very thin and that (like Williams) is best taken in small doses.
Meanwhile, Adrian Bower's buddy relies a little too much on one sight gag – a stock wide-eyed amazement and horror at any and every new twist thrown at him.
The secondary characters played by Ingrid Lacey, Keir Charles and Jonathan Cecil are all conceived as cartoons and are generally played that way. It would have been nice if director Paul Miller had guided any in the cast to more than single-dimensional characterisations.
If these things don't bother you, you too may fall under the spell of the sweet, heart-warming comedy that Elling is for many. Otherwise, the spell may be broken too many times and in too many ways for the enchantment to succeed.
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