It is certainly possible to find fault with Elling. You may feel that Simon Bent’s adaptation of the 2001 Norwegian film (itself adapted from a novel) makes patronising fun of people with mental disturbances: the pathologically finicky, agoraphobic “mummy’s boy” Elling and his friend Kjell Barne, a hulking, simple-minded, sex-obsessive virgin. This is so, but it misses the point. In them we see ourselves. As they are released from their institution into an apartment in Oslo and learn to deal with the world, their challenges are those we have faced ourselves, albeit perhaps with less vexation: interaction in impersonal city contexts, making friends, basic domestic coping, not running up phone bills of NKr4,000 on sex chat lines . . . all right, maybe not the last one.
Yet the duo are not Everyman figures, nor are they holy fools. Elling in particular is a creature composed almost entirely of neuroses. John Simm, a world away from his best- known television roles in Life On Mars and most recently Doctor Who, fashions a character who is prim and precise even when his moves seem fidgety; his Elling reminds me of what we know of the late Kenneth Williams away from his public clown mode.
As Kjell Barne, Adrian Bower manages to lumber and lollop at once, as if he were a zombie Old English sheepdog.
Watching the pair discover roles in life – Kjell Barne as boyfriend to their upstairs neighbour, Elling as a guerrilla poet who leaves his verses on supermarket shelves, secreted in packets of sauerkraut – yields one of the most unorthodox yet enjoyable feelgood experiences in current London theatre. Another criticism may be that it is sentimental. Well, so what? Sentiment is a bad thing only when taken to excess; here, it is just right.
Paul Miller’s production has successfully negotiated the transition from the intimate Bush pub theatre to the more unfriendly amphitheatrical Trafalgar Studio, with a staging that is crisp without being Elling-like in its precision. The Bush run sold out immediately on the strength of Simm’s name. No doubt this stint will do similarly brisk business, but it strikes me that, if the producers so wished, canny recasting could turn Elling into the next Art: a show to see again and again with different stars.
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