This is a great little piece of theatre. Adapted from GK Chesterton's novel, it tells the story of poet Gabriel Syme, who finds revolution revolting and, after becoming an undercover detective, infiltrates a Europe-wide secret organisation dedicated to the overthrow of society. The seven-strong ruling Council take their names from the days of the week; Syme is elected to the group as Thursday.
Attempting to foil their dastardly plans, Syme sets out on a journey during which it becomes apparent that, like him, his fellow anarchists are not always what they appear. But the question that looms largest is the identity of the elusive, terrifying Sunday.
This surreal scenario is, in Ben Harrison's clever production, cunningly played both as tragedy and farce, with the actors called to switch between the two with stunning dexterity. One minute they are donning silly beards and disguises, the next their masks are revealed as something more sinister.
As the story spirals to its conclusion the boundaries between dreams and reality become blurred. Sometimes this energetic production, with its cutout trains, hot air balloons and escaping elephants, is a tad wearing, but the inventiveness of the evening is beyond doubt.
And there is always something more serious going on behind the romp. The way in which the protagonists project their fears so vividly that they become a reality is as pertinent today as it was then. The suggestions is that it is not the anarchist who are the real threat, but our own paranoia. Neil Irish's atmospheric design, with its host of shadowy, sinister cutout figures, sets the tone for 90 frenzied minutes during which the audience, like Syme, has every expectation shaken up. This is small-scale theatre to be sure, but it has big ambitions.
G.K Chesterton is now best remembered for his cosy Father Brown detective stories but even they display his taste for the surreal apparent in earlier novels such as The Man Who Was Thursday. This 1908 thriller, an extravagant tale of anarchists, poets and spies, plays out with all the topsy-turvy logic of a comic nightmare. Jonathan Holloway's adaptation for Red Shift, seen at London's Bridewell Theatre and on tour until March 24, captures the book's blend of paranoia and paradox, farcical adventure and moral allegory.
Ben Harrison's inventive production also turns it into a frenetic but enjoyable theatre as poet Gabriel Syme, recruited by a philosophical covert branch of the police, infiltrates a secret council of anarchists whose members are named after the days of the week.
Syme fills the place of Thursday and finds five grotesque council members led by the enigmatic and monstrously huge Sunday. Symes' sanity-stretching quest to reveal Sunday's true identity leads to a series of desperate flights through the French countryside with card-carrying coppers and bomb-hurling anarchists, and a wild chase in which Sunday hijacks a hackney cab, an elephant from the zoo and a hot air balloon.
The story come across like John Buchan rewritten by the Keystone Cops and anticipates John le Carre in the way it constantly casts doubts on whose side people are really on. Framed by a crowd of shadowy cut-out figures, Harrison's four-man cast shift confidently between the silly and the sinister, donning outrageous hair and whiskers one minute, then malevolent masks the next or manipulating cardboard cars and cutout trains. All credit to Ralph Bolland, Stephen Lucas, Bruno Roubicek and Mario Vernazza for never confusing what day of the week it is.
Although the plot sometimes gets lost in the occasionally repetitive manic action, Chesterton's still relevant themes of art and dissent, order and chaos and moral relativism survive. And, having continually subverted Symes' (and out) expectations, this 90-minute romp manages to leave an aftertaste of surreal perversity that characterises the most vivid nightmares.