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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Theatre review: The History of the World (Based on Banalities) is charming

With a quirky inventiveness, this show's only disappointment comes from a lack of a deeper emotional engagement

It might be difficult to imagine a story about death being charming, but that is exactly what Belgian actor Titus De Voogdt conjures on The Cultch’s York Theatre stage in The History of the World (Based on Banalities).

In The History of the World, a young man (De Voogdt) takes in his mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. She is not long for this world. A celebrated physicist who spent much of her (and his) life in scientific pursuit to the exclusion of her son, the spectre of her death comes from the bed peeking out from a room behind the kitchen. As the young man cares for her, he begins to recount not the history of the world, but a more personal history filled with laughter, loss, and a few parlour tricks.

An appealing presence on stage, De Voogdt’s performance very rarely devolves into self-pity. Athletically using his entire surroundings, De Voogdt ensures The History of the World remains a celebration of sorts.

One of the shows biggest gifts comes from how writers Johan De Smet and De Voogt weave these seemingly disparate stories together. There is an impression of almost free association among them, but there is a huge delight and satisfaction in watching how this is done.

De Voogdt also uses a few parlour tricks – a burning book, a cake that bakes itself, vanishing coins – to emphasize his stories. While these tricks are rudimentary, they add small amounts of whimsy, effectively mirroring those moments of discovery and surprise found in real life.

For all its rich storytelling though, De Voogdt never quite manages to reach very deep into our hearts, particularly when it comes to his dying mother in the other room. Preferring to skip along on the surface, it remains wholly charming, but somewhat detached. Perhaps a nod to the science his mother dedicated her life to, The History of the World would have been more fulfilling had we not spent so much time in our head.

Death does make an appearance in physical form, as musician Geoffrey Burton provides much of the soundscape. From ghostly shadows, or as a dark force appearing in a faceless hoodie, Burton underscores the action, playing live on his electric guitar.

One other surprise comes in the kitchen set in which the young man tells his stories. Detailed in every way, minus actual kitchen appliances like a stove or fridge, the mystery of how a touring show from Belgium could arrive with such an impressive design comes from the program, as we discover it was built by the Great Northern Way Scene Shop in Vancouver.

Don’t let this shows title fool you, The History of the World (Based on Banalities) is anything but boring, and far from obvious. Charming with a quirky inventiveness, it’s only disappointment comes from a lack of a deeper emotional engagement.

The History of the World (Based on Banalities) with text by Johan De Smet and Titus De Voogdt. Directed by Johan De Smet and Titus De Voogdt. A Kopergietery and Richard Jordan Productions in association with Theatre Royal Plymouth, Summerhall and Big in Belgium. Presented by The Cultch. On stage at the York Theatre (639 Commercial Dr, Vancouver) until May 5. Visit for tickets and information.

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