Simon Callow in Juvenalia | Theatre review by Steve Bennett at St James's Theatre, London

Simon Callow in Juvenalia

Theatre review by Steve Bennett at St James's Theatre, London

‘Omnia Romae cum pretio.’

It’s good, but I wouldn’t open with it.

Performed by Simon Callow and based on the 16 satires of Roman poet Juvenal, Juvenalia is billed as stand-up from the 1st Century. And although the gags won’t have them rolling in the aisles in Jongleurs, it’s a fascinating bit of early comedy history, especially since many of the topics and ideas hold surprisingly firm today.

Rife with double entendres – some things never get old – Juvenal addresses subjects such as the failings of an ageing body, the length of time a woman takes getting ready to go out, then getting so drunk she ‘souses the floor with vomit’, and getting mugged. These are scenes you’ll still hear described in comedy clubs to this day.

Perhaps most pertinent are his rages against the inequity of society, talking of the poor surviving on scraps left on doorsteps. Some of this is personal, as he talks about his patron dining in style, while he eats meagrely and drinks ‘wine so coarse sheep chippings wouldn’t absorb it’.

He clearly thinks society’s going down the pan – showing that the attitudes that fuel the Daily Mail were alive and well in 100AD: ‘If I bump into a decent, God-fearing fellow, I bracket him with freaks, like a boys with a double member,’ he harrumphs.

He even talks about gay marriage, although that exposes one of many attitudes rooted in antiquity that might jar with modern audiences. The writing is rich with outlandish misogyny (women are shrewish or mercenary, and woe betide any who dare join in with the men’s meetings), blunt homophobia – plenty of references to ‘pansies’ here – and a dash of racism. They are opinions that might not have seemed quite so extreme in 1976, when Callow, then a young man fresh out of drama school, first performed Juvenalia at the Bush Theatre in London.

On stage now, he certainly has the look of a 70s comedian, performing in dinner jacket and with a mic his booming voice has no need of. And when silver-haired Callow perches on a stool and swigs back a shot of whisky for the purposes of timing a comic bon mot, there’s a clear physical resemblance to Dave Allen.

In a Q&A session after the play – which arrives in London’s St James’s Theatre for a week after its Edinburgh run – the actor instead likens Juvenal to Lenny Bruce, a passionate, vitriolic commentator who rages with fury at the world. He was apparently a ‘rhetorician’ – employed to spice up parties by ranting on demand, like a diatribe jukebox.

Like today’s comics the urgent energy of Juvenal’s writing is more important than structural precision. But he has a fine turn of phrase – he gave us ‘who guards the guards?’ and ‘bread and circuses’ for starters – and there’s poetic imagery here, such as asking a woman whether beneath her cosmetics lies ‘a face or an ulcer’, or evocatively describing statues melted down for chamberpots once their subject fell out of favour.

Nevertheless, marketing Juvenalia as stand-up is probably a push too far; for the rants are only sporadically funny, and sometimes a little too arcane for all but the most dedicated of audiences. As an example, the possibly apocryphal anecdote about how the Emperor and his aides expended much effort on finding a dish big enough to cook a magnificent turbot, presumably at the expense of more pressing matters of state, might have been a pointed political satire at the time, but isn’t so strong now.

Callow’s performance is full of actorly vim, as you might expect, and he brings out the indignant anger while retaining an inherent warmth. He also addresses fictional members of the audience like a modern stand-up’s banter - mocking one character, for instance, for foolishly getting married. And just like a Fringe show from a 21st Century comic, Juvenalia ends on a moral – an uplifting postscript to try to wash away all the grouchy bile that went before.

The old ones might not always be the best, but even if the material doesn’t all hold up today, the fact that Juvenal’s style and content still echoes today proves interesting for those with an interest in comedy history.

• Simon Callow is appearing in Juvenalia is at St James Theatre, London, at 7.30pm until Saturday, with a 2.30pm matinee on the last day.

Review date: 28 Aug 2014
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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