Guy Ritchie has a lot to answer for. Not satisfied with being the flagrant former enabler of Madonna’s muscular ego, he’s responsible for the great swathes of putrid gangster-worship that followed in the wake of Lock, Stock… and Snatch. The last embers of that dubious cinematic movement still smoulder in Naughty Corner’s production Not the Horse; and surprisingly, it’s very good indeed.
The story is instantly familiar. A young man finds himself £250k in hock to a gangster and hatches a ridiculous scheme to find the cash, roping in some friends along the way. In this instance the story hinges around the theft of an ageing racehorse, a massive bag of ketamine, and about a pint of horse semen.
Optimum enjoyment of Not the Horse hinges on familiarity with the tropes of the modern British gangster film. The characters belong to three groups of outrageous stereotypes: Scouse scallywags, inept Irish gypsies, and coke-addled Cockney gangsters. Writer/ director Mike Dickinson pretty much winds them up and lets them run in a whirlwind of insults, one-liners and profanity. It’s hugely exuberant, chaotic, and very, very funny.
That Not the Horse manages to avoid collapsing under the weight of its immediate influences is something just short of miraculous. This is down to the breathless propulsion of the script and some great performances making the most of some thin characterisation. Particular highlights are Ryan Leder as gangster Face and Warren Kettle as Scouser Stan. Both act almost as holy innocents among the carnage. Leder glides through proceedings with the baffled smile of a man achieving an unexpected epiphany; occasionally barking non-sequiturs and ending up face-down in a large pile of marching powder. Kettle’s Stan is the real heart of the piece. Despite his Father Dougal-level stupidity and propensity for malapropisms (‘I’ll light some incest!’), he’s the closest the play has to a hero. The hallucination sequence after an accidental ingestion of enough ketamine to, well, tranquilise a horse is a brilliant piece of physical comedy, both hilarious and frankly disturbing.
Not the Horse works both as a homage and a pastiche of the gangster genre. The restless energy and gleeful profanity offset its more derivative elements and some slightly iffy stereotyping. The cast are clearly having a whale of a time getting their teeth into their absurd characters and that joy is infectious. Any rough edges and slightly dodgy accents merely add to the charm. Just great fun.