Review: Tramp plumbs the theatrical depths

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AN almost-bare stage, a tramp in a loose fitting coat, an atmosphere of despair.

Stephen House as the tramp
Stephen House as the tramp
Sounds familiar? Yes, the tramp, embedded in our collective consciousness by Charlie Chaplin and confirmed by Samuel Beckett’s figures in works like “Waiting for Godot” and “Endgame”, became the quintessential theatrical representation of post-war angst.

And the love affair with tramps has not abated, with Australian manifestations in the form of Monk O’Neill in Jack Hibberd’s “A Stretch of the Imagination” and Max Cullen’s Henry Lawson — dry, philosophical, existential.

Enter writer and performer Stephen House, currently performing his one-man show, “Appalling Behaviour”, at The Street Theatre.

House’s tramp, relocated from Australia (so we guess from his accent) to Paris via the streets of (and possibly a mental asylum in) Calcutta, is a present-day version of the character type.

He survives on the street, sleeping in churches with blessing of priests, occasionally loping up to Amsterdam to buy the high-quality Lebanese hash that keeps him going, consorting with our range of small-time crims in the Parisian underworld and living on the kindness of strangers, like the man who feeds him castoff cheese.

He trades, he snorts up cocaine, he drops pills, he injects and above all, he dances.

But this is no dry, ironical Becket or Cullen tramp, profound with the wisdom of the ages.

On the contrary, House’s tramp is rarely funny, always maudlin in self-pity and soft as marshmallow at the centre, with a sweetly gentle voice that is at odds with some of the shouting he engages in when reporting his apparently “appalling behaviour”, all of which happens offstage.

This tramp lives entirely in the present, only vaguely hinting at a future and a past. Caught in the present tense, his dialogue is with an array of offstage characters and us, the audience, moment by moment.

By and large, it doesn’t work. His search for love and admiration, seen especially through his Don Quixote-like ‘relationship’ with the whore he calls “the Princess of Paris”, is hollow and self-serving.

House purports to be looking at how we treat the marginalised and disadvantaged, using what he terms a “living research process” to live the life he then writes.

But his analysis of himself and the world around him is elaborate and undramatic, largely without wit.

As for the appalling behaviour of the title, (as offputting as a title could be) we can only guess at it. Maybe it’s the behaviour of the much-maligned “People of Paris”, maybe it’s his reported anger-fuelled outbursts. Either way, by the end of this exhausting though short evening, it’s hard to find yourself caring.

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Helen Musa
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