Theatre review: The Crocodile, fortyfivedownstairs

How can a struggling actor maximise his value after being swallowed by a crocodile?

A new production at fortyfivedownstairs, adapted from a pre-revolutionary Russian short story, asks what is the value of a starving artist in a culture that only feeds our appetite for spectacle? 

Based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1865 short story, Tom Basden’s The Crocodile sinks its teeth into the dilemmas of the attention economy. Its main character Ivan (James Cerche) is a high-minded performance artist who is determined to use his platform to address the fraught history of modern progress – even if it’s a platform no one is watching. And those who are watching don’t necessarily like what they see. 

When the play begins, Ivan’s friends have just had dinner without him to discuss the fact that it’s time for him to retire from the artist’s lifestyle – the studio with a sink that’s more accessible than the bathroom, and the social polemics disguised as entertainment – to pursue happiness, security and compromise: in short, adult life. 

His best friend Zach (Joey Lai) puts the case gently and constructively while trying hard to hide his own secret: Zach thinks Ivan’s art is bad. Zach’s strongest argument references Anya (Jessica Stanley), the dancer-turned bespoke pillow-maker who once performed a double act with Ivan, and who Zach hopes will become his wife. (Stanley’s hilarious delivery channels Jenny Slate as well as Marie Antoinette, and it works.)

Anya has happily traded art for the compromise of security. Until something reminds her what she’s missing, and upends all their lives. That something, of course, is attention, but it comes in an unlikely shape – the shape of a crocodile.

Photo: Jack Dixon-Gunn. 

When Ivan gets swallowed by a crocodile, he becomes an overnight sensation from within the belly of the beast, becoming addicted to the limelight until the spotlight turns on him. 

While Ivan and Zach choose the zoo as the place to discuss their futures, the zoo brings them face to face with the dilemmas of the present. There’s a case to be made that the zoo was the Dickensian version of social media, and Basden’s 2015 play insinuates that case convincingly. 

Where the 19th century had zoological societies, the 21st century has programmers. Where the 19th century had freak shows, the 21st century has Twitterstorms. When Ivan’s dancing crocodile becomes an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular, he uses his burgeoning celebrity status to argue that the zoo is a metaphor for capitalism – until the lights go out, and the angry mob closes in.

It’s a compelling story, and the Spinning Plates ensemble, which showed some foresight in snapping up the rights to the play, bring a lot of pleasure to the text. Whether it’s Anya’s love for the limelight, Zach’s dreams going unfulfilled or a satirical nostalgia for a time when newspapers commanded crowds, the social criticism is biting and the comedy is on point.

In a versatile multi-character role as The Swing, Cait Spiker is the voice of the people, as well as the voice of their oppressors. The power of her performance, as well as Cerche’s, emphasises how hard it is for art to stay relevant when the most compelling news is that the people have no bread. Or cake. 

The down to earth Aussie comic delivery makes The Crocodile’s once revolutionary argument for social comedy seem comfortable and familiar as well as understandable. It is counterpointed by pared down lights and boxes deconstructing the nature of the beast – whether the beast is the crocodile, the zoo, 19th century Russia, 17th century France, capitalism, Twitter or performance art.

Read: Performance review: Broadway Diva, Holden Street Theatres, Adelaide Fringe

Cassandra Fumi’s talented direction, informed by an intimate knowledge of interesting avant garde stages, both in Melbourne and internationally, brings all the elements together and the overall impression is of a stylish, enjoyable, accessible and contemporary take on our moment, which resonates into the past. 

The postmodern pièce de résistance is the costume design by Ghetto Cabaret genius Dann Barber (who has also done great work for Red Stitch), which evoke the excesses of the Baroque period while keeping a dainty-heeled foot in the absurdity of 21st century culture.

It’s a reminder that you’re watching a contemporary play adapted from a short story about pre-revolutionary Russia when it was most influenced by France’s Ancien Régime. The Crocodile is on the 2023 VCE drama syllabus, and if you want to step through the looking glass into all the delights Melbourne theatre has to offer, you couldn’t find a better place to start. 

The Crocodile by Tom Basden
Spinning Plates

Director: Cassandra Fumi
Costume supervisor and maker: Alexandra Aldrich
Set and Costume Design: Dann Barber
Design associate: Savanna Wegman
Sound design: Gabriel Bethune
Lighting design: Spencer Herd
Stage manager: Luci Watts
Assistant stage manager: Finn McLeish
Cast: James Cerche, Joey Lai, Cait Spiker and Jessica Stanley

Tickets: $22-$48

The Crocodile will be performed until 26 February 2023.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin