By Rhiannon Humphreys
Bummer and Lazarus by Jack Harrison is a Fringe show that is at once comedic, existentialist and absurdist in nature. On the surface, it is about two inseparable friends, the title characters, who are trapped, on the brink of starvation and need to find a means of escape from their captivity. However, on a larger scale the work explores broader concepts such as hunger, memory, and life and death, and our understanding of these things. Lazarus (played by Jack Harrison) is young, naïve and keen to learn all that he does not know, while Bummer (played by Alec Walker) is older, more experienced and primarily concerned with how they are going to escape and whether or not they will die. Also, both characters are dogs.
Lazarus seems to struggle to remember and understand things, which challenges Bummer to explain basic concepts to Lazarus in a way that is comprehensible to someone who knows almost nothing. This introduces the existential aspect of the piece as Bummer tries to explain feelings such as hunger, something that is not tangible in the same way an animal or a location is, but still very much exists as a thing – much to Lazarus’ confusion. The play takes a darker tone as he also explains the concept of death and its ultimate finality, something which Lazarus has not understood up until this point. This allows for a subtle reference to Lazarus’ name, and how he may have died before, like the Biblical figure. Through looking at ideas in this way, the piece challenges us as audience members to consider and break down our understanding of these concepts, rather than to just accept what we think we know.
Unless you read the blurb for the show before you attend, the play itself never explicitly states that the two are dogs, leaving the audience to guess throughout aided by subtle hints and the impressive physical behaviour of the two characters. They both really embody the energy of the young dog and old dog, and the physicality is clearly carefully studied. The plot is inspired by two real life dogs who lived on the streets of California during the 1860s, and who were notably inseparable and excellent at killing rats. The pair gained notoriety and were immortalised in a series of newspaper cartoons. Inspired by this fact, the pair in the play are concerned about how they will be remembered after death, if at all, which allows another existential topic to be explored in the show.
Bummer and Lazarus is a fun, thought-provoking, intense and wonderfully nonsensical piece of theatre. The energy is kept throughout and the actors combine fast-paced dialogue with dynamic physical theatre. Both actors suspend our disbelief despite only being armed with a handful of props and dressed in plain clothes, yet at no point does one’s attention wane, nor does one stop believing what is happening on stage. The contrast in the characterisation of the young dog and old dog is highly effective, and this, combined with the comedic nature of the piece, makes for a very enjoyable and accessible piece of absurdist theatre.