The one-man play recounts an action-packed life.
If there’s such a thing as a storytelling gene, it would seem that James Craze inherited it from his late grandfather Ernie Hort, “just the guy next door.”
After discovering Mr Hort’s unpublished autobiography, actor-writer Craze set out to recount his purportedly ordinary relative’s really rather action-packed life.
Ernie is a fast-paced one-man play which sweeps us energetically through the 1930s, 40s and 50s to the present day. It’s a tale which circles the globe, despite its narrator’s pretence at the commonplace.
With subtle physical and vocal changes, Craze impressively transitions between a cast of characters that could fill a West end chorus line. Amongst these are Mr Moon, a winking, piano-playing headmaster; long-nosed, Dickens-esque Mr Pratt and furious Milkman Harry who roars as Ernie’s slack steering sees bottles crashing all over the street.
Just sometimes though, we wish Craze might select his leading characters and let them breathe a little longer in 503’s intimate space. This could not be more true of Craze’s portrayal of Ernie himself. As he reels off his grandfather’s life in events and occurrences, Craze allows spectators to adopt the role of keen historians, but leaves them to guess at a fuller profile of Ernie’s personality.
Situations and people pass by in vivid and photographically detailed snapshots but, while no doubt entertaining, these only serve to hint at Ernie’s character. We long to sit down with this enigmatic man in his air-raid shelter for more than a minute.
However, if our desire to understand Ernie’s character is not always satisfied, an appreciation of his skills as a storyteller – and of course those of his grandson – is readily available.
Craze delivers his grandfather’s narrative with peppy asides and draws snorts of laughter as ridiculous situations unfold. Giggles are exhorted as Ernie scurries away from a barking employer, whips his clothes off as the sheepish subject of a military health examination and when he mischievously points out the “skinny legs” of his will-be wife.
Simple staging and lighting are all Craze requires, as a focus on physicality allows him to embody engines, boats and missiles. In such a way Ernie’s life expands on stage beyond the small neighbourhood of his upbringing into a world at war in which things whirl, explode and burn.
However, when Craze unveils a photograph of his smiling grandfather at the play’s end, we are powerfully reminded that, for all the actor’s animated performance, this has been the story of a real man. Tenderly imparted by his grandson, it is something a little more than a play.
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