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Dennis of Penge (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: Dennis of Penge

Society: London (professional shows)

Venue: Bridge House Theatre. 2 High Street, London SE20 8RZ

Credits: By Annie Siddons. Directed by Sahar Awad

Dennis of Penge

2 stars

It’s fun to see a play whose setting is so local that you know every street corner, shop and pub mentioned – although it means that it would sit very awkwardly anywhere other than at the Bridge House which lies in the heart of SE20 where all the action takes place. It’s almost a site-specific piece.

The author, a woman of Penge, writes in the programme that, in line with her own experience, this is a play about finding sobriety or freedom from addiction and telling the truth about how difficult it is. Actually it’s also about poverty, the shortcomings of the benefits system, friendship, identity, obesity, loneliness, marital fidelity, bullying, forgiveness, redemption and more. It’s ambitiously – perhaps over-ambitiously – complex both in terms of plot and style. The story is told by narrators who move in and out of the action and who speak – as in Greek drama – in verse.

The eponymous Dennis (Wayne C McDonald) is a reworking of Dionysus, the god of transcendence and ecstasy. He appears first as a child who is best friends with a little girl named Wendy but no body knows where he comes from. Twenty five years later he is serving in a local fried chicken shop and meets Wendy (Mariam Awad) again. She is now seriously damaged, a recovering addict with no self-esteem or possessions and hands which tremble continuously. Awad is very convincing in this role particularly when she  eventually finds the courage to speak up for herself and others like her. In Dennis, McDonald finds plenty of gentleness, including some tender, fecund lechery (not with Wendy) and eventually a roaring, god-like power as he gradually develops into “The God of Lost Souls.”

This play has the largest cast I’ve ever seen in a fringe show: twelve adult actors, two children, and three drummers who suddenly, rather oddly, appear ten minutes before the end as the play climaxes with a procession/demonstration on a megasaurus in Crystal Palace Park.  Many of these cast members are still learning their craft and for several, this is the first professional production so, inevitably acting – and especially the quality of diction – is variable.

It isn’t easy, either, to direct that number of people effectively in The Bridge House’s small studio space so it often seems crowded. Moreover, the play consists of a large number of short scenes separated by brief blackouts during which you hear actors moving in and out of position. That feels amateurishly bitty. In most cases it would have been far better simply to move from one scene to the next.

There are some witty and memorable lines in this busy, intense play. “Sex, death, petrol and hope” seems a pretty fair description of life for some less-than-fortunate Penge residents and I chuckled over “So we [South Londoners] don’t have the tube but we have chicken. Chicken is the opium of the people”.


First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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