Stage Left: Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) has flashes of brilliance

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Victoria’s Theatre Inconnu has emerged as an alt-theatre champion in recent years, punching well above its weight with sharp little productions of oddball and (occasionally) brilliant theatre.

Notable efforts include Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, Shock Headed Peter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.

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The company’s zeal for the peculiar continues with Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), by American dramatist and screenwriter Sheila Callaghan.

This curious, dark comedy sometimes loses its way when Callaghan’s insistence on being quirky devolves into arbitrary silliness. Still, there are flashes of magnificence and a comedic surrealism reminiscent of Martin McDonagh.

Callaghan’s language can be breathtakingly poetic and fresh — a baby’s mouth is described as a “hot blossom.” Her depiction of pre-pubescent despair — a tortured character called Janice — is remarkably powerful.

In Crumble, we meet mother and daughter scant days before Christmas. They live in a flat within a rundown mansion. The latter is anthropomorphically represented by the highly original character of the Apartment (well played by Matthew Connelly in a tailed tuxedo). The whole building has fallen into disrepair and chaos, just like the lives of 11-year-old Janice (Fiona Wright-James) and her mom (Wendy Cornock).

The mother, a professional chef, cannot cope with her daughter and their crumbling apartment following the recent death of her husband in a freak accident.

The daughter’s life has completely short-circuited. Friendless and isolated, Janice spends her free time re-enacting (with dolls) the vicious bullying she experiences at school and concocting murderous fantasies requiring maggots and bleach.

Janice — a challenging role quite nicely played by young Wright-James — swears like a sailor and plots with the hothouse abandon of the emotionally disturbed. Her sole claim to normalcy is her fevered infatuation with NSYNC-era Justin Timberlake, who drops in occasionally to comfort her. Justin is portrayed by Jon Hunwick, who, on opening night, displayed a comic knack and deft dance moves.

Mom is comforted on the phone by her sister Barbara. Played by Julie Gray with Edith Prickley broadness, Barb is a stereotypical cat lady (she owns 57). The character is a cliché and is, perhaps, Callaghan’s biggest misstep.

Overall, the cast, directed by Don Keith, does a solid job with a difficult script. It’s tricky to capture the tone for which Callaghan strives, a mixture of avant-garde surrealism, shock humour and — underneath it all — genuine humanity.

Crumble won’t be to everyone’s taste. Still, it’s truly a singular show and the open-minded theatregoer will find something to enjoy here.

Seeking a guilty pleasure? You can still catch the deliciously gooey Mamma Mia! at the McPherson Playhouse.

The Victoria on Stage Musical Theatre Society (a.k.a. the Victoria Operatic Society) continues its run of the ABBA musical today and Sunday.

(There’s a fairish chance you’ve already seen it. In an epic South Island ABBA throwdown, Mamma Mia! also played Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre last month and the Chemainus Theatre Festival early this year.)

If you like ABBA (I do), you’ll likely enjoy this supremely silly musical, showcasing the relentlessly tuneful music of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.

The plot of Mamma Mia! is idiotic, even by musical-theatre standards. Sophie (Angelina Robertson) is about to be married in Greece, where she lives. She wants her father to give her away. However, a flip-through of her mother’s diary reveals that the identity of dear old dad is murky. He might be any one of three contenders — all of whom are invited to the wedding. When they arrive, Hallmark-movie hijinks ensue.

Meanwhile, mom (Jolene White) has invited two of her gal pals. They used to be in a pop group, which gives the creators of Mamma Mia! an excuse to have them belt out ditties such as Super Trouper with the go-girl gusto of soccer moms at a chardonnay party.

The characters are crudely drawn caricatures. One of Mamma Mia!’s most risible moments is when English dad contender Harry (Michael Romano) asks, apropos of nothing: “Would there be a trouser-press on the island?” Yes, Virginia… dear old Harry’s an utter Brit nerd.

The acting in this show, directed by David Brillinger, is intentionally broad. Sometimes, it seems the performers are yelling lines from the bottom of a canyon. No matter. We’re here for the songs.

Highlights on opening night included an entertaining rendition of Under Attack by Robertson, carried aloft by men in bathing costumes. She’s a strong singer who phrases well and delivers melodies with a pleasing lyricism.

Robertson carries this show with White, who arguably gave the best performance. As Sophie’s mom, White sang with an almost operatic heft, sometimes goosing the songs with a raspy pinch of grit. In Act II, she truly came into her own, rising above the limitations of the script to imbue such songs as The Winner Takes It All with admirable passion (White absolutely nailed the final high note as the audience cheered).

All the lead performers had worthwhile moments. Particularly memorable was Take a Chance on Me, a duet for Stephanie Geehan (Rosie) and Dwayne Gordon (Bill), who turned the ditty into an over-the-top seduction scene.

A small but mighty band, conducted by Brad L’Écuyer, provided a big orchestral sound for a score that includes S.O.S., I Have a Dream, Chiquitita and — of course — Mamma Mia.

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