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REVIEW: Elling | Southbank Theatre, Melbourne

Very serious issues are played in a very silly way in this Melbourne Theatre Company adaptation of Elling. The humour almost robs the drama at its heart.

Bert LaBonte, Darren Gilshenan and Hayden Spencer in Elling (Pic: Jeff Busby)

Does an evening spent with two mentally ill Norwegians sound like hard work? The Melbourne Theatre Company argues it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.

A comedy about individuals who live outside of normal society but find themselves thrust back into it, Elling is the story of a fastidious middle-aged recluse who is forced to come to grips with the modern world after the death of his mother. The play opens with the eponymous hero’s arrival in a residential mental healthcare facility, where he forms a close friendship with Kjell, a naive fellow obsessed by sex and food. The odd couple are given a flat by the government, in which they have to prove they can live “normal” independent lives. The rest of the play charts their efforts to do so, battling their demons and learning to live more fully along the way.

Simon Bent’s script takes its protagonist from a series of books by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, a Norwegian author with a penchant for writing about characters on the fringes. First performed in English at London’s Bush Theatre, the English-language version of the play is based on a film from 2001, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign feature.

There are lots of things to like about MTC’s take on this quirky Scandiwegian tale. The beautifully designed set goes from resembling a realist, clinical interior — think Ikea — to having an Escher-like, magical quality. There’s a satisfying irony in how the controlled environment breaks down into something more chaotic as the characters conversely become “saner”; by the end of the show the set resembles a deconstructed madhouse, but it is full of trapdoors and windows that weren’t there before.

The performances of the lead characters are also enjoyable, with Kjell’s physicality in particular — something between a lumbering oaf and a lovable puppy — brilliantly evoked by Hayden Spencer.

But undercutting these pleasures is a lack of tension that makes Elling feel oddly inert. On paper, a comedy about two mentally unstable characters sounds edgy. But in fact the play elides much detail of what is troubling Kjell and Elling, ultimately depicting their hang-ups — including being unable to leave the house or have a sexual relationship — as incidences of surmountable kookery. It’s a gentle approach that makes for easy watching, and never risks enough to be hilarious.

Tellingly, Ambjørnsen has expressed some ambivalence about the stage and screen version of his character. As he says in the program:

“Some aspects of Elling emerged that did not have much to do with the original story … He became ‘silly little Elling’. But he’s often quite nasty. I wrote about a thousand pages about a mentally ill man. So its hard for me to see what’s so funny about him.”

A little more grit could have helped to raise the stakes on a pleasant play that feels too safe be deeply affecting.

The details: Elling plays MTC’s Southbank Theatre until December 8. Tickets on the company website.

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