The Show

The Show (2020)

The Show first published by

Mitch Jenkins’ The Show begins with a view of Planet Earth from outer space, before zooming in to the centre of England, and finally descending upon a puddle by a motorway from which the title is seen emerging as a car passes. It is an apt introduction to a story where the cosmic and the carnal are constantly confounded, and where a God’s-eye view drifts naturally to the gutter. It is also not the first time that Jenkins has collaborated with graphic novel maestro Alan Moore (who wrote the screenplay and eventually appears in a key rôle) to put Northampton, or at least its hidden reverse, on the movie map. For The Show is set in the same cinematic universe as their earlier collection of interwoven shorts Show Pieces (2014) – indeed it is a direct sequel of sorts – exposing England’s ‘heart of darkness’ as a crepuscular zone of overlapping underworlds, both criminal and infernal. Here, in the ruins of a working men’s club, it is hard to distinguish Northampton’s comedy circuit from the circles of hell – and the show must go on. 

Passing that puddle at the beginning is our slippery protagonist (Tom Burke). An outsider, like us, to this strange world, he is a charming, good-natured man of mystery, curious to look behind the curtain of things. Passing himself off under different aliases – Steve Lipman, even (heh heh) Robert Mitchum – and varying occupations to the different people whom he meets, Fletcher Dennis has come from London on a hired mission to track down both James Mitchum (Darrell D’Silva) and an item of Rosicrucian jewellery. James is dead, and the cross is missing – and as Fletcher goes down a rabbit-hole of obscure clues, oneiric associations and otherworldly encounters, it will emerge that this locus of dreams and illusions conceals a concurrence of different plots in which he is all at once pawn, agent and medium.

At roughly the midpoint of The Show, a cab driver (Babou Ceesay) interested in simulation theory says to Fletcher: “If we are inside a computer game, it is not so much whether you are good or evil, necessarily, so long as you are not boring”, adding, “It’s the boring characters that get killed first – that and the black ones, I suppose.” In a sense, we are inside a computer game, as one masked vigilante (Richard Dillane) observes and manipulates everything that is going on from behind his monitor, while others, too, watch from the wings – and here, every character is an interesting eccentric constructing their own little domain in the Northampton netherworld.

Fletcher’s landlady Becky Cornelius (Ellie Bamber) is an over-emotive parapsychology student and part-time tour guide, her performer boyfriend Brendan McAllister (Andrew O’Neill) is trying to belong to as many despised groups as possible, and the Hitler-moustachioed glam-synth frontman Herbert Sherbert (Eric Lamaert) is “planning to annex Shakespeare Road for the Lebensraum“. There is a vampiric morgue attendant (Julian Bleach), a metaphor-murdering doorman (Bradley John), a disturbed barfly with 20/20 vision (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), a Voodoo-practising drug baron (Sheila Atim), a pair of pre-pubescent noir ‘tecs (Oaklee Pendergast, Ethan Rouse) – and while this mad motley crew might bring an element of constant distraction and disorientation to Fletcher’s hunt for the MacGuffin-like cross, nobody could accuse these characters, for all their status as bit parts, of being boring.

A survivor – unlike James – of the earlier Show Pieces, investigative journalist Faith Harrington (Siobhan Hewlett) makes common cause with Fletcher, as she realises that his shifting search may help bring to an end her now recurring nightmares set in a local working men’s club that ceased to exist in the early Seventies. Certainly Fletcher seems dressed for the part, his colourful striped jumpers recalling none other than genre cinema’s most notorious dream navigator, Freddy Krueger. This pair’s inquiries will lead irrationally to the long-dead comedy duo of Nicky Matchbright (Robert Goodman) and Frank Metterton (Alan Moore), the latter once – and still – a practitioner of black magic with a special personal interest in Fletcher’s employer Patsy Bleaker (Christopher Fairbank). 

“Is this real?”, Faith will ask, as someone particularly well placed to appreciate, after her near-fatal autoerotic accident, the proximity of life, sex and death. “No,” Fletcher – an avowed Zen Buddhist – will reply, conceding only that “the puddle in the road is real.” His words (said twice in the film) take us full circle, to the opening cosmic perspective on this human habitat, and to that puddle in the road from which the narrative appears to ripple, radiate and ramify, like life emerging from the primal ooze. The Show is ultimately a mystery, both narrowly as a genre film of investigation, and in the broader religious sense of the word. For here both our mundane shabbiness, and our essential rôles in a grander narrative, are staged as spectacle, with a comedian’s eye for the profound truths beneath our pettily absurd human masquerades. Jenkins’ surreal city symphony transforms Little England into an overlooked site of invention, resistance and revenge, while the erudite poetic wit of Moore’s script is a dizzying blend of high and low, the profane and the occult, funny-haha and funny-weird. So take the best seat in the house, and settle in for some wildly rip-roaring – albeit entirely local  – entertainment.

strap: Mitch Jenkins’ comic revenge mystery mixes the cosmic and the mundane, while putting Northampton’s hidden reverse on the map. 

Anton Bitel