Dennis of Penge review at Ovalhouse, London – ‘clever and compassionate musical storytelling’
Annie Siddons’ Dennis of Penge is a mighty piece of poetic storytelling. By turns ribald and sublime, it’s a cri de coeur for compassion and community that relocates Euripides’ The Bacchae to south London – “the tube don’t come here” – beyond the gentrified portions of Brixton and Peckham and into the largely yuppie-less realms of Penge, Croydon and Sydenham.
Dionysus emerges as handsome, green-eyed chicken shop manager Dennis, the long-lost childhood friend of obese outcast Wendy. She’s a victim of addiction, privation, an opaquely inhumane benefits system and its attendant jobsworths.
This Penge-based Persephone, who hungers for two quid chicken and chips, is drawn with skilled delicacy by Siddons. On a stage adorned only with drum kits and some neon strip lights, she performs alongside mercurial actor-musician Jorell Coiffic-Kamall (resplendent in Dennis’ glitter-smeared combo of purple tracksuit and yellow string vest) and composer Asaf Zohar, whose nimble score blends atmospheric guitar licks, gospel stylings and the sounds of Capital FM.
Zohar also takes on the role of Neil Pratt, a number-crunching bureaucrat who delights in withholding welfare payments at Pentheus Care Consortium, “a private company that aims to act as a one stop shop for the unloved.” Siddons’ portrayal is glorious in its prurient precision: “Exceeding targets gives him a semi…creating a hostile environment for the sick makes his sphincter tingle and tops up his pension plan.”
Any lapses in energy and rhythm are understandable and brief – this cast of three shoulder a Herculean theatrical burden and carry it off with aplomb.