Hamster Town @ Camden People’s Theatre

David Ralfe’s Hamster Town at times borders on the twee. The story of Darren, a lonely abandoned father who finds redemption through his bond with a hamster, it’s the kind of thing that – on the surface at least – might make PIXAR go weak at the knees. Perhaps, however, even the movie suits would balk at the idea of a man falling so obsessively for his pet: “It’s just you and me!” he coos rather manically.

As Darren’s relationship with his hamster grows so his one with his sanity lessens; soon he has created a Hamster Town full of Hamster Queens and Hamster Halls. Ralfe’s affability keeps this boat afloat. His facial features are the perfect fit for this cuddly critter and his transformation from man to beast is eerie. His little nose twitches, as he licks and cleans himself and shuffles around: man becomes hamster.  Ralfe is LeCoq-trained and at times you can see that he knows how good he is and the work becomes almost like an extended party piece; which is a pity because occasionally it almost seems as if an act of transformation is really taking place, but he breaks the spell by acknowledging the audience’s giggles.

The stage is dressed with only the bare necessities (though, in a nice juxtaposition, the hamster has the very best in cage accessories, including a set of cheese knives). Ralfe uses all the physical skills at his disposal to shape his environment. We see him railing against wind and rain and feel the claustrophobic loneliness of his cramped flat. But it is the darkness at the edges of Hamster Town that really makes it work, that turns it into something more than just an amusing piece of clowning. Ralfe’s ability to take the quaint and make it into something almost Lynchian is wonderful. As Darren’s fingers begin to caress the holes of the hamster cage in an erotic manner things become increasingly uncomfortable and the audience starts to feel as though the rug has been well and truly pulled out from under them.

The ending of the piece however feels too neatly tied together given the strangeness of the preceding chapters and the story gets pretty thin after a while. But there’s something in Ralfe’s strange relationship with the animal which is oddly compelling and he’s such an affable, engaging performer that this makes for a very enjoyable hour.

Runs until 17 August 2011
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