James Mannion’s neat new play succeeds on two fronts. As the story of Ruth and her mental breakdown, it’s a boldly irreverent take on psychosis that, with trippy touches, takes the audience up close to paranoia. Abandoned by her husband, and living in designer Cecilia Trono’s creepily dirty set, Ruth’s treatment by the men in her life provides a sub text with risqué humour. Secondly, Mites is a dark, absurdist comedy: as Ruth chats with her (talking) cat and mistakes a murderous pest control officer for her husband, the plot is full of impossibilities, with jokes that entertain as much as raise questions. The play is crazy all around and mightily good for just that reason.
There’s a recklessness to the humour here that belies Mannion’s skill and the precision of his director Marcus Marsh. It’s a joy to hear how cleverly the oddly antiquated language is used (one of my favourites is the neglected word hullabaloo), while Marsh’s control over the action, quite literally in terms of keeping movement in check, is superb. For all the antics, there’s restraint. It would be too easy to run around shouting, but Mites isn’t a farce – the humour is original and bold with its own distinct pace.
You can see this control in the performances, too. Take George Howard’s Ken – the true psychopath here. He’s an opportunist at first and his rambling lies (yes, they do include a rhinoceros) are delivered with such charm as to make him almost appealing. In the play’s central, and craziest, scene – I won’t spoil the surprise – we see Howard take on another bonkers role with great skill.
With the other two roles, a query nags over the casting. Although I should stress that the performers do a great job, there’s a suspicion that both characters should be played much older. Richard Henderson is brilliantly dead pan as Bartholomew ‘the cat’ and is equally skilled in a second identity. And Claire Marie Hall is excellent in the lead role: good at creating sympathy for Ruth and fantastic when it comes to suggesting a darker edge to the part. But, with more than a few references to age, bolstered by a morbid streak in the piece, it seems a missed opportunity not to have senior performers on board. It’s easy to see how several scenes, especially Mannion’s pointed notes on misogyny (so frequently linked to age), could benefit. You may think that a performer’s date of birth is a moot point. But it’s exciting to note how an already strong play could have easily been made even more provocative. Mites has legs – lots of them – and I urge you to catch it.
Until 26 October 2019
Photos by Lidia Crisafulli