In A Nutshell
An irrepressibly charming biography of heart and honesty, bolstered with an exceptional performance.
Ernie Hort is a man who believed he’s done little of any worth, describing himself as, “just the guy next door”. But none the less, we’re taken through his life from growing up in the poor East End of London on the outbreak of World War II, to his enrolment and service in the navy. Hort’s biography is written and performed by his own real life grandson, James Craze. As Craze takes us through his grandfather’s life, we’re introduced to the dozens of different characters that Ernie met during his lifetime.
What’s so refreshing about how this play portrays Ernie’s life is just how frank and non-sensational it is. In a year where many theatres are remembering the horrors of the First World War, it’s nice to see a more matter-of-fact and less dramatic account and military life and conflict. But that’s not to say the piece is without interest and climax; Ernie gives his accounts of nights in bomb shelters, the ambush on the flotilla his corps were escorting, and getting chased by an angry and violent mob in Egypt. Its just that nothing is embellished or told with a view to be provocative. It’s just a man, casually going through the facts, regaling his achievements and revelling in memory. Beneath all this is a humour and honesty that is irrepressibly charming. Everything about the play feels very real and personal. Craze, through his writing and performance, makes it effortless to connect and empathise with his grandfather and his life.
Craze’s writing also ensures that the show never feels like granddad drolling on to himself. He introduces myriad characters that Ernie knew and interacted with. Although all performed by Craze and Craze alone, the play is brimming with a full West-End sized cast that interacts with our hero, making the text as dynamic and as electric as they come, making this a solo show in name only. The only criticism is that Ernie’s accounts are so ‘as is’ that you’re aching to know about what else happened. What japery did he and his comrades get up to in Hong Kong? What was the first kiss with his wife-to-be like? Did the cocky Scotsman ever get what was coming to him? It’s at these points you realise that you’re completely hooked, and by the time the hour is up it feels as if you’ve be sat down for mere minutes. Despite Ernie, in his own words, “never climbing any mountains or contributing to modern medical science”, for 60 minutes he is the most fascinating person you’ve ever met.
Craze’s performance is also one of the most astonishing on the London stage right now. He is one of the most dexterous and talented physical performers in London. He not only snaps between characters in the blink of an eye, but is always completely unrecognisable from the last. He masterfully exaggerates small little quips and ticks in voice and physicality to glorious effect, making him distinct in every person he becomes, whilst simultaneous still leaving an impression of the last in the air around him. As well as tackling over 30 characters with an insatiable energy and stamina, Craze is a performer that knows that the devil is in the detail, and this is what makes his performance incredible. I could have almost sworn he was an actual man of many years when he first came on stage, and after flipping 70 years into the past become a younger Ernie, I then watched him almost literally grow older before my eyes. It’s an absolutely magical feat, making this a performance that is utterly inescapable. Not only has Craze written a well paced and engrossing text, his performance is so ecstatic it’s addictive.
There isn’t a director, per se, as Craze himself making the space his own, darting around it making good use of the space’s depth and width. But he is supported by a superlative production consisting of Sara Huxley and Alex Jordan’s lighting and sound designs. With nothing more than a chair, a couple of costumes, and an old crate, their audio and lighting beautifully colour the show. They’ve a keen eye for artistry and aesthetic that elevates the show even further beyond Craze’s exceptional performance. Lighting changes, such as the soft spot down-lighting for Neville Chamerblain’s declaration of war to a well timed black out, are genuinely striking. They demonstrate that Huxley and Jordan are not a production team that are content with doing the minimum, but find ways to actively augment Craze’s work.
Ernie is inescapable and indescribable in person and in text. Seldom does writing, performance, and production come together so perfectly to create something so astounding. You’ll leave the auditorium dizzy and elated, as well as with a small lump in your throat. An enthralling, personal, and heartfelt show like no other.
Ernie plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 23 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £10 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.