Ziggy Stardust and his “Spiders from Mars” blare out of the speakers at the end of this thought-provoking, collaborative experiment devised by the ensemble actors of AllthePigs' young company themselves. It's an apt choice of music because, as you may remember, a decade ago a smartly-dressed but drenched-through young man was found wandering the streets of coastal town Sheerness in Kent. The Piano Man, as the Daily Mail later dubbed him, didn't speak a word and remained unidentified for months. Had he been washed up by the sea? He might as well have arrived from Mars, such was people's bewilderment.
When medical professionals gave him a pen and paper in the hope he would write down who he was, he drew an elaborate picture of a grand piano. When staff brought him a piano, he played Tchaikovsky (and the Beatles) non-stop. Was he, then, a famous concert pianist? Or an untrained, possibly autistic, musical genius? Was it a hoax: “Did you make it all up?”
This stinging final accusation is the starting point for AllthePigs' workshop-style exploration in this studio theatre of some of the issues the surreal story threw up. Research-wise, they read the conflicting media reports from the time and spoke to neurologists, psychologists, nurses and the police to try to understand what might greet an Andreas Grassl today.
The 75-minute play starts fairly effectively and intriguingly with a lecture, with projector screen visuals, on the mysterious workings of the brain given by a snappy doctor (Sarah Bradnum). Then Andreas himself (Daniel Hallissey) is welcomed by a cacophony of health workers who prod and poke him “rather a lot” – enough to make the poor guy go nuts, if he isn't already. As satire of our 'care' services, it's somewhat one-dimensional, but makes its point and provokes a few laughs. Distractingly for the audience, though, a loudmouth American journalist (Chris Matragos) tries to get in on the action throughout.
Inevitably in a tale that still has many unanswered questions, AllthePigs' crew imagine and act out a back story to help explain Andreas' breakdown (if that's what it was). Press reports when his identity became known in 2005 suggested that he was gay (something his father apparently denied). The cast's gay relationship-breakdown theory is plausible, but would have benefited from a longer and deeper investigation on stage. A nice idea, treated a bit cursorily, with acting that didn't convince.
Still, it was fun to see new people try out new things. If you don't know it, the New Diorama Theatre is a little oasis in a hideous new-ish high rise offices and flats campus near Euston. Money from the New Diorama Emerging Companies Fund supports new talent on London's fringe, including AllthePigs, which was founded in 2010 by two Oxford School of Drama graduates, Amy Stidolph (who acted in this production) and Sam Carrack (who directed it). This theatre venue and this company are well worth keeping an eye on.