[author-post-rating] (4/5 stars)
A struggling actor takes on a corporate role-play job – not a particularly innovative story line, you might think, but when it’s New Perspective’s The Boss of It All, based on Danish auteur Lars von Trier’s 2006 comedy of the same name, you can expect a lot more than gruesome team-building games, grim pay, and bitching by the water cooler – though there’s a fair amount of that too. The Boss of It All is a sarcastic, surreal slice of, well, something you can’t quite put your finger on – von Trier billed his film as an office comedy, but really it’s an existential experiment about faking it, failure and more failure. Whatever it is, it’s bold, blackly funny and frequently bizarre tale in which failed actor Kristoffer is employed as professional scapegoat for the CEO of a soon-to-be defunct IT company. You already know what you’re in for when an accented voice-over (A von Trier soundalike, no less) welcomes us cynically to the show. He apologises in advance for if we don’t enjoy what we see, but hey, what the hell can he or we do about it – we’re all here now. How abrupt! How absurd! How utterly unashamedly anti-audience satisfaction, we cry, but that’s pretty much the tone of the entire show – so trust me, you learn to love it.
Plot-wise, it’s essentially a farce, with the contractually-obliged-to-continuously-lie Kristoffer improvising like crazy to convince a group of less than enthusiastic employees that he really is running the joint. The boss’s feats of utter absurdity include not knowing what the company does and never actually managing to find out, singing the name of a dead employee to comfort a crying widow, and instigating an indoor game of rounders in which a clipboard is used as a bat. It could easily descend into flippant, far-fetched fun, but writer and director Jack McNamara is an astute enough student of von Trier to keep a sparse, even downbeat realism about the proceedings.
It grabs you by the funny bone at such an awkward and unexpected angle that you might find yourself grinning and grimacing all at once. The transition from screen to stage works out surprisingly well, perhaps because the Fringe is pretty much the perfect place to pitch a no-holds-barred somewhat morbid mickey-take of ‘the craft’ (acting, not sorcery). Against the deliciously dreary backdrop of designer Lily Arnold’s coolly functional, colour-co-ordinated set, punchy performances from a strong cast ensure The Boss of It All is wry, sprightly and refreshingly free of sentimentality. It’s difficult to resist the eccentric charm of it once you catch onto the fact that The Boss of it All has its tongue so firmly planted in its cheek it will probably need surgical intervention to remove it .
It has to be said that the beating heart of this piece is the glorious Gerry Howell as the pretentious but somehow vaguely loveable Kristoffer whose painful performance of big boss Svend makes David Brent look like a natural-born leader of men. Though Kristoffer is pretty much amoral, apart from the dilemma of whether he’s being true to his character, there’s a good dose of vulnerability and self-loathing in there to keep him from slipping into a nasty case of caricaturing. Ross Armstrong also shines as the actual boss Ravn, a cowardly and callous schemer who treats everyone around him with jovial insincerity. Anna Bolton looks like she’s fresh off the set of a particularly traumatic episode of Borgen as the weepy, fragile Mette; terminally bored Lise (Kate Kordel) has this way of expressing pure disdain without moving a single facial muscle, whilst Tom McHugh and James Rigby are so good at their multi-role-playing between ineffectual employees and fun-sucking Finnish contractors that it took me until the final third of the play to realise there was any multi-role-playing actually going on.
True, the pace slackens at times, and in the blaze of Howell’s glory, other cast members have to work harder to get our attention, but it’s still severely stylish, unapologetic and brilliantly off-beat stuff. I rather think von Trier would be proud. He wouldn’t say he was, that would be a bit too much for Von Trier – but I’m pretty sure he would be.The Boss of It All is playing at Assembly Roxy as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 26 August. For more information and tickets, please see the Edinburgh Fringe website.