“Schrödinger” by Reckless Sleepers

at Warwick Arts Centre, Monday 14th November 2011

Written for www.StageWon.co.uk

“It may seem to you that we have done this for the first time” is as close as Reckless Sleepers’ Schrödinger comes to a strapline. Yet this is the last thing on our mind; the very point of this show is that it considers the ritualistic aspects of life, how certain events become commonplace and how only the visible world around us can be seen to be ‘real’ at any one time. This physical-theatre-cum-performance art production mixes humour, intellect and mesmerising movement in order to ask some rather deep philosophical questions.

The set is a a black box with one side taken out, complete with doors, traps and shutters, in and around which all the action takes place. The cast of five (Mole Wetherell, Leen Dewilde, Alex Covell, Leentje Van De Cruys, Kevin Egan) enter and exit the cuboid with remarkable energy, moving from scene to scene. One involves one man wrongly naming the pictures on pieces of cards, the other a drinking game which gets wildly out of hand. There’s no narrative, merely vigenettes of characters’ lives within the space.

What it’s all trying to say is anyone’s guess. It seems the director Mole Wetherell is making a point about our perception of our world from both internal and external vantage points, questioning how things can seem to be one thing within a space yet be utterly different in reality. The philosophy on show is a mixture of the problem cat-in-a-box of the title, Plato’s Cave and Beckett’s ideas about the cyclical movement of time.

This isn’t theatre as such, and never professes to be, yet the live quality gives an air of excitement and drama, especially as the piece reaches its frenzied climax. The influences are endless, yet one suspects it hasn’t got merely a handful of origins in Events and Happenings of the 1960s. There’s something cathartic and hypnotic about it, bring joy and despair in equal measure. We are told at one point that “Between the times when you are certain and when you are confused you will see that again”. And with a few particular images and moments seared on my skull, I don’t doubt that for a moment.

“Operation Greenfield” by LittleBulb Theatre

at Warwick Arts Centre, Friday 11th November 2011

Written for www.StageWon.co.uk

A full-length play which manages to take one theme and explore it in an exciting and probing way is a rare thing, even at institutions as esteemed as the National Theatre. Yet within the space of eighty minutes, LittleBulb Theatre in Operation Greenfield manage to cover friendship, adolescence, faith, sexuality and ambition without ever leaving a topic falling by the wayside. This small-scale, four-person production involves some of the most precise physical theatre I’ve seen and has one of the biggest hearts on the touring circuit at the moment.

Four teenagers from the fictional town of Stokely decide this is the year for them to win the annual talent competition. They form a band made up of a multitude of different instruments and find inspiration in the Annunciation of the New Testament. As their music progresses, the questions every teenager has to ask (How do relationships work? What will I do after school?) crop up, and develop these already wonderfully realised characters to new levels.

Theatrically and visually, this is a stunning piece of work. The actors move around like clockwork, moving props to pre-recorded sound with startling precision yet never losing the charm of the characters. Scene changes are beautifully realised and ingenious, and we barely notice as the actors pick up and play instruments. Even moments of dialogue are timed perfectly, so that the ebb and flow of the background noise moves with the emotions of the scene. There is a clear sense of play here, tying in with the creation of music.

Under the direction of Alexander Scott, the four actors – Clare Beresford, Shamira Turner, Dominic Conway and Eugenie Pastor – portray hilariously the awkwardness of adolescents, and the desire to be ‘cool’. None of them can look the others in the eye, and each has their own clear agenda. They are all multi-talented too, playing a range of instruments and controlling the on-stage sound desk whilst moving around set and lights.

Even though the company clearly wanted to tackle the question of faith, however, the theme of Christianity does feel somewhat extraneous. It has clear links to the story – the band are formed through a Christian club and their songs concern the Bible – but I can’t help thinking that the piece would be just as effective without this through-line. These teenagers seem so bogged down in their faith that they have little time for anything else, and their inability to question this doctrine is both scary and unrealistic in equal measure. The issue is not with the theme, but with its lack of development; while the characters’ sense of self and others changes throughout the course of the play, their attitude to religion remains constant, which isn’t dramatically interesting.

If it wasn’t for this small qualm, Operation Greenfield would be nigh-on perfect. It is charming, optimistic and technically brilliant. LittleBulb remind us to regain a sense of play and tell us not to be afraid to try new things. In times of economic and moral despair, we should all try to recapture that fearlessness and ingenuity we had as teenagers if things are to even remotely improve.

“Going Dark” by Hattie Naylor

at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 27th October 2011

Written for www.StageWon.co.uk

“We are all scattered stardust”. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful lines I’ve heard on stage in the past year. It encompasses perfectly what Sound&Fury’s stunning production of Going Dark is trying to say; that nothing is ever simply as it seems. Tom Espiner and Hattie Naylor, the co-creators and writers, use both emotion and science to make us question who we are and how we view the world around us. A simple monologue about space mingled with scenes between father and son creates an intellectually challenging and emotionally engaging night out.

When John Mackay enters the improvised studio space, he asks us to switch off our mobile phones for, during the show, there will be moments of complete darkness. We quickly realise this is said in character, as he welcomes us to his talk as curator of the planetarium, beginning a fascinating lecture on the cosmos. His talk continues for the next hour or so, but woven amongst this are scenes which show him being diagnosed with retinis pigmentosa. Discussions with the voice over of his child then show how he copes with this and reminds us of the importance of sight.

But it is the way in which this story is told which makes it so impressive. Just as in a real planetarium, images are projected onto a canopy to demonstrate points about constellations, while at other times this ‘projection table’ acts as a screen onto which images are displayed. It’s a wholly original idea and one which plays with associations with and uses of light. From corners of the room comes a child’s voice, playing with our imagination.

The production would be impossible without John Mackay’s strong performance, however. He is father and scientist, full of knowledge about the cosmos, yet completely igorant about his declining sight. He can create a close relationship with the audience at one point, and switch immediately to an intimate scene with his son.

Going Dark is one of those shows which ticks all the boxes; a great script, strong performance and an ingenious mode of storytelling. It looks internally and externally, looking at how we view humanity from outside and how we view the universe from earth. Sound&Fury are certainly ones to watch.

“The Wild Bride”

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 25th October 2011

Written for www.StageWon.co.uk

It’s not often we find traditional folktales which have a feminist agenda. They normally reinforce patriarchal values and misogyny, mirroring the beliefs of the society in which they were first told. Kneehigh Theatre’s new production of The Wild Bride, fresh from the Lyric Hammersmith, manages to find a lesser known tale which champions women’s rights, creating a heroine who refuses to be identified in accordance with the men in her life and who manages to gain independence in a male-dominated world.

The story, adapted by director Emma Rice with text by Carl Grose, follows a daughter sold to the devil by her father due to a mistake. She is forced into the wilderness, but is taken in by a prince, who falls in love with her before impregnating her and heading off to war. It doesn’t sound like the setup to a defense of women’s independence in society, but the bride’s continued ability to survive without the help of men makes the point clearly.

In true Kneehigh style, the story comes first, interlaced with impressive dance routines and catchy songs. Rice’s direction doesn’t shy away from stereotypes, but these caricatures feel remarkably human. Some quirky touches and original ideas create a sense of magic and wonder. She is helped greatly by Stu Barker’s impressive soundtrack, the best since Brief Encounter, which begins as traditional folk music before introducing pounding base and club rhythms into the second act. Etta Murfitt’s choreography emphasises the bride’s zest for life.

Three actors play the bride during various stages of her development; as daughter, wife and mother. I worry somewhat that this reinforces certain stereotypes, but it’s bizarrely effective. She becomes a new woman with each turn in her life, and is played with a calm pathos by Audrey Brisson, Patricja Kujawska and Eva Magyar. Stuart Goodwin is hilarious as the father and husband, but it’s Stuart McLoughlin’s devil which impresses most, acting as narrator and creator. His vocal range is extraordinary, and he creates a human version of Lucifer who is at times truly scary.

It does seem at times, however, that although Kneehigh are doing what they’re good at, they are staying firmly in their comfort zone. There aren’t any techniques here which haven’t been used before, and even Bill Mitchell’s design doesn’t take many risks, bearing striking resemblance to both Hansel and Gretel and The Red Shoes. The production at times feels too polished (if that can be a criticism), and in being so slick it can become sterile, losing the charm of the original story. Though it’s hardly a bad thing that the company have become too good at their house style, it’d be nice to see a few more risks being taken.

Rice’s joyous production revels in storytelling and play. We are shown the growth of a woman, and by extension the growth of womankind. With one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a Kneehigh production and some beautiful moments of text, the company have created a solid, impressive production after a short lapse in quality. If you’re a Kneehigh fan (and why wouldn’t you be?), The Wild Bride won’t disappoint.