THE Tartuffe is not the definitive Tartuffe, but it is the definitive Belt Up Theatre production.
Or rather, it was, because Tuesday’s riotous performance was the final curtain for both this chaotic comedy and its disgraced protagonist, the vainglorious actor Orgon Poquelin.
After three years of James Wilkes’s “play outside a play” acquiring a cult following – not to mention devotees of the Facebook postings of the company’s work in progress – time is being called on this absurdist rebirth of Moliere’s French farce.
In Wilkes’s account of a luvvie’s labours lost, Poquelin (Dominic J Allen) presents a theatrical representation of his fall from grace at the hands of a sinister conman, the charlatan holy man Tartuffe (Marcus Emerton).
Assisted by his troupe of scene-stealing, yet faded French variety-act vagabonds, Poquelin attempts a performance to exorcise the demons of his career-destroying scandal.
Cue mime artistes; audience walk-on parts and an Edith Piaf clone (Nicola Carter, with such personality in her voice). Cue too, a lackadaisical game of tennis and a silhouette of a sex act involving a banana going where the sun don’t ripen. Ouch.
I saw the future of theatre on Tuesday and its name was Belt Up – and I felt like the accidental guest at the wrong party, but that’s good.
Move over Mr Stuffy, wave goodbye to restrained behaviour in the plush seats and say hello to wild noise, constant applause and the kind of reaction more associated with The Mighty Boosh or The League Of Gentlemen’s extreme comedy shows.
Belt up? No chance! The volume rose, on stage and in the auditorium alike, as Allen shredded his voice in pursuit of the ultimate performance as Poquelin, a greasepaint tyrant beyond even Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond.
This was a demob-happy performance, as Wilkes corralled as many of his Tartuffe alumni as possible – maybe 20 in all – into a grand send-off. And yes, the clowning comedy was over the top, even clambering over the piano, but why not? Any skating with the self-indulgent was only in keeping with Poquelon’s character.
There was something of the young Monty Python does Moliere about The Tartuffe, and Belt Up are yet to leave their student roots behind them as they settle into their new status as company in residence at Theatre Royal, but rather than being laddish, Wilkes’s show found the women giving as good as they got in the comedy stakes, from Lucy Farrett’s nude-suit Elmire to Danie Linsell’s errant Mother, Margaret.
Whether sending up the avant-garde, debunking Northern Broadsides’ Barrie Rutter or injecting topical references, Belt Up have a pleasingly anarchic spirit to go with their ragged musicality, salacious satire and burgeoning theatricality.
The irreverent finale, mimicking Christ on the cross as the dead Poquelin was lifted on high, was a spectacular coup de theatre.
After such heights, where do Belt Up go next? Nine shows, yes nine, at the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe suggest a company in very rude health, so watch them grow... and purists please duck!