Theatre Review: THE TRIAL – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

THE TRIAL - People Zoo Productions

People Zoo Productions grotesque and darkly comic adaption of Kafka’s THE TRAIL is both innovative and incredibly daring

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub. 

Considering Franz Kafka wrote THE TRIAL more than half a century ago, it’s uncanny prediction, both in subject matter and form, is eerily disturbing. In today’s world of mass surveillance and Islamic State brutality, this timeless tale of ordinary terror is as relevant today as it has ever been, with People Zoo Productions capturing the essence of this strange and surreal fable in their new production.

THE TRIAL tells the terrifying story of one man’s struggle to defend himself against a malicious and faceless power. It follows the life of Josef K, an ambitious and shrewd young bank official who wakes up one morning to find himself suddenly and inexplicably arrested. Facing ritual humiliation, impenetrable secrecy and unfathomable procedure, Josef K spends the next year trying to advance a defence against a charge unknown, with “help” from a bed ridden lawyer, a painter and prison chaplain.

Daring, dark and deeply thought-provoking, People Zoo Productions grotesque and darkly comic adaption of Kafka’s THE TRIAL is one of the best productions of GM Fringe so far. Evelyn Roberts and Matt Holt take the expressionist absurdity of Kafka’s novel and twist it into a strange and surreal comedy that is both innovative and incredibly daring.

The production plays out like a farce – much in the way in which Josef K sees his arrest – with the cast cleverly using physical humour, buffoonery and horseplay to make light of Kafka’s serious and disturbing plot. Yet for all its laugh-out-loud moments, the absurdity of Josef K’s predicament isn’t underplayed. The second act takes a darker turn as the protagonist begins a dark descent into desperation, taking part in bizarre humiliations and compulsive procedures as he tries to fight against an invisible Law and an untouchable Court.

The fast-paced plot is driven forward by six actor/musicians, many of whom take on at least four parts. William J Holstead steals the show as the hapless Josef K, the indignant and outraged banker arrested for a crime unknown. As the hero and protagonist, Holstead is in every scene, immersing the audience in a modern, existential guilt that nags at the back of the mind for the duration of the play.

Elsewhere, Sarah Legg stands out as The Boss, Huld the Lawyer and Ms Grubach, K’s sex crazed landlady, easily providing the most laughs. Adrian Palmer is equally impressive as K’s impetuous Uncle Karl and Titorelli, the flamboyant Italian Painter.

While the tense, terse and brooding nature of Kafka’s original book gets a little lost in farce-like nature of the production, the team make good use of the audience, addressing them as jurors at the magistrate’s court, to emphasise the bleak, dystopian vision of a silent Big Brother watching everything. The innovative use of music and lighting also adds to the drama, capturing both the comic exasperation and sheer desperation of a man who is slowly heading towards his final judgement.

All in all, this is a tremendous play which does justice to Kafka’s original novel. A daring piece of independent theatre that is well worthy of its slot at the Greater Manchester and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Runs until 30 July