Stunning the Punters: Reviews

A Berkoff premiere, is a big event in the Chester Festival Fringe: tripled as it is here with a new work by Glaswegian Robert Sproat and a newly adapted Dostoevsky story, it’s really quite a coup.

And if the three world premieres boil down to a 90-minute one-man show on its way up to Edinburgh, you must bear in mind that the one man is George Dillon. Not everyone will know the name (except, confusingly coincidentally from the title of a John Osborne play) but he is one of the most uncompromisingly compelling performers I have seen.

Northern puritanism predisposes me against showy acting, yet here I am applauding an unapologetic display of virtuosity until the blood runs. he has the vocal precision of a Gielgud, the physical presence and skill of Marceau, and a heart, mind, and attack that are all his own.

He has already shone in presenting Berkoff’s work, such as Salome at the National. Yet I imagine he could be difficult, as perfectionists are, in a company, which may be why he’s formed Vital theatre to tour his own devastating work.
It’s not just technique for its own sake – these three short stories of imagination run wild taken together, adopt a paradoxically positive stance on human frailty and bravado.

Steven Berkoff’s Master Of Cafe Society gives us a resting actor’s stream of consciousness as he ritually breakfasts in a cafe – to identify with the workers – and shares his Oedipal fantasies and humiliating sense of frustration in a world where work, and television exposure, confers reality.

Robert Sproat’s Stunning the Punters has an ex-skinhead, after spraying racist graffiti, discovering from the cover-up that pretence speaks loudest. And in Dostoevsky’s Dream of a Ridiculous Man, adapted by Dillon and his director Laurence Boswell, a despairing philosopher dreams of a pre-lapserian world of innocence and beauty which his own savage sensuality corrupts until it, too, scorns his idealism. “This is what we must fight against“, he says as they put him away for his own good, “and I shall.”

It’s an odd world where someone with George Dillon’s capacity to lead an audience single-handedly into such adventures of the soul ends up teaching English. Others can do that; few can do this.

Robin Thornber, THE GUARDIAN, 3 August 1990

Actor George Dillon brings together three short stories with which he invests the kind of tight physical energy and vocal precision that makes them seem built for the stage. His delivery is stylised, but crystal clear, pulling you into the lives of each character using the power of description alone.

Each monologue draws a sensitive and involving portrait of a character at odds with society. Steven Berkoff’s Master of Cafe Society avoids the cliched send-up of the ‘resting’ actor and opts for a sad and touching study of the meaninglessness of unemployment. Robert Sproat’s Stunning the Punters dares to look at society’s complicity with racism, while Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man – Dillon’s tour de force – is a passionate humanitarian treatise.

A masterly performance by turns witty, brutal and poetic.

Mark Fisher, THE LIST, 17 August 1990

One man and his dogged talent

Cynically suspecting a combination of egomania and cheap-skating, many critics tend to steer clear of the one-man shows which proliferate on the fringes of the Fringe. However, Stunning the Punters, a triple bill of world premieres by Steven Berkoff, Robert Sproat and Dostoevsky, performed by George Dillon, is a compelling piece of theatre: make haste to Marco’s Leisure Centre, dodging squash players and dubious smells to catch it.

George Dillon looks rather like Berkoff (gaunt, bony), but what makes him an ideal Berkoff interpreter is his ability to change tone in mid-sentence, to catch the sudden falls from purple mock-heroism to raspberry-blowing bathos. The first piece, Master of Cafe Society, is the monologue of an out-of-work actor. The glorification of physical sensations, from the munching of a sandwich to the feel of phlegm in a Kleenex, and the scurrilous descriptions of parents (mum repeating phrases like a cracked record, dad stuck to the TV like a fly to paper) cannot hide a growing sense of futility and desperation. Dillon, directed by Laurence Boswell, catches both the mocking, vital energy and the despair to perfection.

The title piece by Robert Sproat is a jaunty account of the outbreak of racism on an estate in North London. Dillon is an ex-skinhead with an engaging but forced grin. Sproat just lets him tell his story, about a graffiti spree which ends in the death of a skinhead, without comment. We are left to try to account for a monstrous hatred which seems almost unconnected with the people who express it, but which, Sproat suggests, is better expressed than expunged.

By far the longest part of the triptych is Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. Consisting mainly of a would-be suicide’s redemptive dream of a world without sin, it is also the least obviously dramatic, but Dillon manages to express the Himalayan emotional range of Dostoevsky’s character, from ecstatic wonder at an innocent world to horrified disgust at his own contagious imperfection, in a remarkable performance. No epitaph for this actor; let him be granted more work in better places.

Harry Eyres, THE TIMES, 18 August 1990

Everyone likes to make their own discovery at the festival – some show or performance plucked on a whim from the anonymity of the festival’s 537 companies and found to be good. I plump for Stunning the Punters, described as a triple bill of world premieres first performed in Brighton, and in fact consisting of three monologues by Steven Berkoff, Robert Sproat and Dostoevsky.

The previous evening depression had set in with the sight of much second-rate acting from Kenneth Brannagh’s Renaissance Company. Now my spirits are restored by George Dillon’s display of theatrical technique, timing and diction of flawless precision in all three monologues. And if there are echoes of his colleague Berkoff in his style, it certainly serves Dostoevsky well. His Dream of a Ridiculous Man is my Fringe discovery.

Joan Bakewell, THE SUNDAY TIMES, 19 August 1990

George Dillon performs this trio of adapted short stories with electrifying verbal and physical precision. Harry is a typical Steven Berkoff loser, and the first monologue Master of Cafe (in its stage premiere) is the story of his breakfast. The nameless narrator of Robert Sproat’s Stunning the Punters is an ex-skinhead recalling a racist graffiti spree. In Dostoevsky’s Dream of a Ridiculous Man we hear of a dream-world of innocence and caring, and the brand this leaves upon a suicidal wretch. Dillon’s experience with Berkoff material is brought to bear on the other two pieces without smothering their own respective tones; the Dostoevsky piece is an emotional tour de force. Stunning the Punters is a breathtakingly arrogant name to give to a show; it is also entirely accurate.

Ian Shuttleworth, THE INDEPENDENT, 20 August 1990

Meanwhile, George Dillon is busily ‘Stunning the Punters‘ at Marco’s with a triple-bill of solo shows by punk populist Steven Berkoff (‘Master of Cafe Society‘), Robert Sproat (‘Stunning the Punters‘) and Dostoevsky (‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man‘). While the first two primarily provide two showcase performances of virtuoso acting – all coy looks and fiercely measured aggression – the last sees Dillon clambering inside a monologue that explores a poetic nightmare born of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost‘ . It’s a hypnotic spectacle; a ‘Brazil‘-like allegory that switches dramatically from a grey, spiritless, urban world to savage sensuality as the ambiguous dream-narrator is transported to a Paradise (read Earth) which he subsequently contaminates, Lucifer-like, with the so-called wisdom of a fallen world. Pretentious? yes, but beautifully executed.

James Christopher, TIME OUT, 29 August 1990

He do the piece in different voices

Times are hard, single actors cheap, and so the Edinburgh Festival fringe is always well endowed with solo performances. Strangeness, stylishness, and modest achievement overall, were the hallmarks of the 1990 Fringe. This year, the one-man performances seemed especially numerous. In one of the best of them, George Dillon incidentally offered a kind of three-part anatomy of the form’s possibilities, helping to account for successes and failures elsewhere. Dillon’s first piece, Steven Berkoff’s Master of Cafe Society, showed a struggling actor’s encounters with agents, parents and audiences and provided an opportunity for the performer’s ability to people the stage with an array of characters precisely differentiated in voice and manner. The next, Robert Sproat’s Stunning the Punters, used theatre as platform, even as soap-box: it showed a skinhead pausing in an imaginary game of darts to give the audience an illustrated lecture on racism, using the rhythm of his movements to and from the board to add emphasis to a vision of urban decay. The third piece, Dostoevsky’s Dream of a Ridiculous Man, brought together the technical strengths exhibited in the others to realize the best potential of the one-man show – its thorough, intimate entry into an individual world and psyche. Dillon’s range of voice and marionette-precision in movement outlined an awkward character of hugely oscillating mood, a persuasive vehicle for Dostoevsky’s visionary ideas. By the time the ridiculous man drifted out of the auditorium, still engrossed in dreams beyond life and death, the audience almost believed his shining, sinless world to be within easy reach.
Dillon’s virtuosity made other on-man shows appear narrower in range.

Randall Stevenson, TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, 31 August 1990

It meant paying, but three days after going to see Stunning the Punters I went to see it again. George Dillon’s one-man show consists of three separate monologues adapted from original texts by Steven Berkoff, Robert Sproat and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

After Dillon “did Berkoff proud” (The Scotsman) in Decadence and Greek, the great man agreed to let him use an early story, Master of Cafe Society, which opens the show. This is a bitterly funny confessional from the mouth of Harry, a work-starved actor describing the minutely ritualised daily breakfast in which he has come to invest his whole sense of purpose. Deeply versed in Berkoff’s humour and technique, Dillon brings a manic vigour to this revolting and compelling little monster: if you think there’s nothing funny about matricidal daydreams, crushing guilt, and failure, you’re in for a surprise. Sproat’s Stunning the Punters is an ironic epitaph for a skinhead whose brainchild – a colossal spread of racist graffiti – grows and redoubles its hateful force after his death.

The longer Dream of a Ridiculous Man is taken from a febrile moralistic pamphlet published privately by Dostoevsky three years before his death. After an opening reminiscent of Notes from the Underground (“I am… ridiculous“), The Dream turns into the testament of a holy fool: transported through space to a world of unfallen people, the dreamer’s ecstasy turns to horror as he finds himself in the position of a corrupting Antichrist.

Dillon’s taut, shaven-headed presence is exactly right for each of these diverse outsiders, and helps to keep his audiences staring. his voice, whether bellowing, whispering or crooning, remains effortlessly powerful and his diction is razor-sharp; his mime is tight and economical; he even seems to shrink and grow at will. This is one-man theatre at its most intelligent and most powerful. Dillon has stunned punters and critics in Edinburgh and London, and is set to stun more when he takes his show on the road later this year. Don’t wait to be told about it, or to read another critical paean – go and see for yourself.

Sam Willetts, WHAT’S ON, 12 September 1990

By George, what a bravura attempt

Speaking of new young actors bringing good old charisma to the stage, I finally caught up with George Dillon’s mesmerisingly intrepid one-man-show down in Brighton, having missed him at the Young Vic.

There has been a fervent return to favour of the daring bravura style of acting lately and Mr Dillon is cast in such a mould. He performs three quite dissimilar one-act monologues with a riveting physical swagger and bravado.

His first piece is a new work from Steven Berkoff, Master of Cafe Society and Dillon is a natural heir to Berkoff’s stylised upfront acting techniques. the play centres round an out of work actor’s lonely breakfast vigil among the hurly burly of the city’s early morning workers.

The evening ends with a new version of Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, a gothic nightmare vision of an unwilling outcast who dreams of a caring community contaminated by his own presence.

Sandwiched between is Sproat’s defiant account of a graffiti lout’s protest against an indifferent society.

To each of three diverse characters Dillon gives a distinctive voice and a finely honed individuality. It is a talent which should go far.

Jack Tinker, THE DAILY MAIL, 28 November 1990

Awesome physical control, enviable vocal range and precision, faultless timing, and the ability to effect startling changes of mood almost in mid-sentence are some of the technical attributes demonstrated by the Berkoff-inspired actor George Dillon in his extraordinary one-man triple bill. What gives the show its guts though, is the emotional depth and complex humanity that Dillon also brings to each of the characters he portrays.

In Master of Cafe Society, written by Berkoff, Dillon is an unemployed actor, trying to stave off the awareness of failure on the daily ritual of breakfast at a local cafe, but assailed by resentment, fear and uncertainty as reality and fantasy jostle for supremacy in his mind. In Stunning the Punters, Dillon becomes a skinhead football supporter, tearing at hypocrisy and dispensing abrasive social wisdom as he recalls an orgy of graffiti carried out with his mates. And Dostoevsky’s Dream of A Ridiculous Man offers Dillon his sternest challenge, as a visionary/madman possessed by the belief that he had glimpsed paradise on earth.

All three are very different characters, portrayed with equal authority and conviction, as Dillon holds the stage for two hours with brash defiance and assurance.

Mick Martin, THE GUARDIAN, 29 January 1991

If George Dillon is not totally drained by the end of his one-man performance of this powerful triple bill, his audience certainly is. face, limbs and torso more flexible than the latex of Spitting Image, more grotesque than a Steve Bell cartoon, the actor grabs his punters by the short and curlies. He punches, he kicks, he cajoles in beseeching entreaty until they are eating out of a hand which then snatches it all away.

Each of the plays contained an astonishing range of characters. In Berkoff’s Master of Cafe Society, it’s the frustrated out-of-work actor munching and slurping his way through a ritualistic breakfast till one can smell the bacon and feel the clawing of greasy pan bread on the palate; the Neanderthal father, with his fag-soaked voice and inarticulate philistinism; the down-trodden, ever-so-proud-of-her-son mother; and a hideous parade of sleazy agents and actresses.

In Robert Sproat’s Stunning the Punters, bovver-booted skinheads meet dreadnought Rastafarians, their brutally obtrusive presence ignored by willfully ivory-towered professors as easily as commuters ignore their spray-painted litany of racist obscenity.

The last play of the trilogy is Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. Here, the characters become symbolic of their age, society and profession, as we see Dillon the ridiculous, Dillon the corrupter, Dillon the primitive, and lastly Dillon the despairing evangelist with his time-dishonoured message: “That ye should love one another as ye do yourself.”

It is a wizardly performance, admirably spellbinding rather than pleasurably entertaining.

Mary Lockhart, THE HERALD, 8 March 1991

Nowhere in the world will you hear a sharper sermon about human frailty this Sabbath night than at the Traverse Theatre where George Dillon ends his run of three performed monologues, Stunning the Punters.

Dillon is an astonishing technician, better equipped than most actors in the land, who commands dramatic effects as if he were Marcel Marceau wired into a Wurlitzer. He disciplines and orchestrates these forces most effectively in Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, a parable which will remain topical whenever inhumanity prevails. This is the craft of acting carried to a pinnacle of virtuosity.

W Gordon Smith, SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY, 10 March 1991

George Dillon is considered by many to be the finest exponent of Physical Theatre in the UK. In twenty years of occasionally watching him perform, I have seen nothing that would counter that claim. In fact, if anything, his shows continue to improve with time.
Stunning the Punters, is directed by Laurence Boswell, in which Dillon actually presents three short pieces of theatre by different authors of which I shall comment here:

Master of Café Society by Steven Berkoff

From the moment Harry, the London actor, wakes from his night slumber and clears his throat, producing a green, disgusting amount of phlegm that he ceremoniously spits into a tissue, you know you’re in deepest, darkest Berkoff Country! Harry, is in the process of fighting off inner despair from his sheer lack of acting work. In the café, he observes those around him who appear to all be in work, dressed in their various ‘work uniforms’ of suits, overalls etc. Harry however, is most definitely not working but gives lie to the illusion of being fully occupied. Yet when he visits his parents at the East-End family home, they constantly bombard him with absurd and irrelevant comments. His mother believes beyond doubt that her son should be working since ‘he bears a likeness to Paul Newman’ while his father, goads and belittles his son, that he fails to contribute to them financially in their advancing years, since he has to keep himself in theatrical make-up!
Dillon has performed this work to audiences up and down this land almost a thousand times, yet he never appears to tire or grow stale. Far from it; these same renditions just keep getting better and better.

Stunning The Punters by Robert Sproat

Just when you thought you were getting to grips with Dillon’s range of personas, he appears as a ‘far-right’ ex-skinhead who relates a tale in which he was caught up in an act of despicable racism. Although this piece was written over a quarter of a century ago, the relevance of the script is tragically just as pertinent today and one is left pondering how little in our society has truly changed. Despite the evil, racist act committed by this group, there are still riffs of real humour injected into the piece which bring a little light relief to this otherwise grim tale. Although it is shocking to hear racist language of this nature anywhere, theatre must continue to boldly reflect life back to us in all its glory and horror. It is a sad reflection that these minority views still persist today.
Dillon is wonderfully mesmerising in this role and although you are repulsed by the character, there is a dreadful magnetism that makes you want to keep on watching. Disturbing and provocative it most certainly is.

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man by Fyodor Dostoevsky adapted by George Dillon.

In this final piece, whilst a man is considering his own suicide, he falls asleep and dreams that he has killed himself and travelled to another planet where people live in harmony and remain undefiled by evil. However, over time, his own presence defiles these people and he believes he can only redeem them by offering himself as a sacrifice for their sin. Yet he is met with hostility and is treated as a madman. The man is only reconciled by believing that humanity is not fundamentally evil, but has only fallen from grace. It is a story of its time, in that it reflects much of the Orthodox Church’s effect upon the Russian nation. He concludes by compassionately imploring his onlookers to love one another, even as we should love ourselves.
The performance is as inspiring as it is profound, related with true intensity and passion. It is rather like a religious experience in itself.
Twenty years ago I thought this show was great, but Dillon is like a fine wine that has rested and matured with age. His performance is now deeper, and his delivery carries greater conviction. Certainly the Punters were Stunned and captivated by this performance and at the final curtain call, Dillon left the stage to rapturous applause.

Arguably, no single person in British theatre has a better understanding and presents a fuller expression of physical theatre than George Dillon. His vocal range is phenomenal whilst his physical presence is captivating. Superlatives become redundant.
If you have not seen this show, please take note of it and rush for tickets when he is next in your area. See it to believe it!

David Weedall, FRINGEREVIEW, 15 July 2016

The description tour de force is often used and seldom deserved; but I can’t think of a better description of George Dillon’s extraordinary performance in this searing monologue that features excerpts from three theatrical works.
Steven Berkoff’s Master of Cafe Society is the tale of a struggling actor facing up the bleak prospect of another day’s failure; Robert Sproat’s Stunning The Punters is the story of a skinhead who indulges in racist slogan-scrawling alongside some London railway tracks – and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man is about a vision experienced by a would-be suicide.
Dillon is a truly gifted actor – every utterance, every gesture draws the audience in to his respective characters and holds us spellbound. Anybody who cares about serious theatre and the actor’s craft should make their way quickly down to Spotlites to catch this performance. Rarely has a show been more aptly named.

Philip Caveney, BOUQUETS & BRICKBATS, 16 August 2016