Wednesday, 5 February 2014

From Devon with Love Festival



This review of the From Devon with Love season at The Bike Shed Theatre was written for Exeunt Magazine...

Produced under the Framework banner – the Bike Shed’s artist development programme headed up by Chloe Whipple – From Devon with Love is an invaluable part of Exeter’s arts scene, offering a welcome place for audiences to catch a look at fresh work and new companies. Much of the work has been supported by other aspects of Framework, such as the graduate programme (a collaboration with Exeter University), Scratch nights and In Your Space (a week’s worth of development time in an empty shop unit), demonstrating the extent to which the Bike Shed is committed to nurturing the city’s performance culture. The range is broad and the quality variable, and it’s interesting to see what is focussing the minds of our practitioners. It showcased 18 pieces across three weeks (plus a day-long mini-festival of work by under 18s), of which I saw the following:

The vastness of the galaxy and our place within it form the premise of Running Dog Theatre’s one-man show, The King of Infinite Space. It starts fairly well: Josh Lucas sits at a desk playing solitaire, a goldfish bowl to one side plus some lamps, a projected passage from A Tale of Two Cities reminding us of humans’ perpetual state of mystery to each other; a soundscape pulls in the voices of the street, the city and expands out until we hear the tinny crackles of interstellar exploration. The fish bowl becomes an astronaut’s helmet and the projections introduce Michael Collins, the man who piloted the command module in orbit around the moon while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong played golf on the surface. For 48 minutes of every two-hour orbit, out of range on the ‘dark side’, Collins was the most isolated human in the universe; a prophecy of his largely forgotten role in that most famous of adventures, perhaps. We’re prompted to consider the voyager probe, still pushing ever onwards into the unknown, presenting a 1970s version of the earth and its populace on disk – plus the instructions on how to play it – to any intelligence it might meet in transit. The loneliness of space is evoked by the eerily plaintive wails of a blues guitar…

Sadly, the piece – admittedly a work in progress – then runs out of steam and turns into a somewhat inept lecture, with Josh delivering facts about interplanetary distances coupled with musings on feeling lonely in his bedroom and a fractured father-son relationship. He lights some candles and blows them out. The ‘performance’ lacks dynamism and the writing is flabby; there are typos in the projections. Although produced by a recent graduate, the piece is suffused with teenage solipsism and disregard for his audience.

Another recently graduated company, Jointventure, incorporate ideas of scale to greater effect in their multimedia work in progress, 30, about the Greenpeace activists arrested by the Russian authorities. Spotlit on a table, a tiny tableau of a polar bear amid the ice is then projected large onto the rear wall of the space; footage of the activists on the deck of the Arctic Sunrise, blown about by the blades of the approaching Russian helicopters, plays in the background as performer Jac Ifan Moore stares up into the searchlight from the chopper, his waterproofs flapping furiously in the wind; letters home focus on a savoured Mars Bar… each element layers the small local action onto its global resonance, and connects the political with the personal. Moving between scenes in a cell, footage of demonstrations from around the world, interviews with members of the Arctic 30, and direct address testimony from an activist explaining what forged his decision to sign up for the protest, 30 pulls the debate effectively into focus. There’s lots of scope here and clearly the skill to navigate – it’ll be interesting to see where Jointventure take it.

Also engaging with current debate was Eye Level Theatre Company’s Consent, which considers the act of rape during the making of a porn film. Shifting between the trial in which actress Sarah Jones (Jenny Hall, who makes a good job of an underwritten role) accuses her co-star James Hallow (Jordan Edgington, chillingly arrogant) of sodomy against her wishes mid-scene and the moments leading up to and into the scene in which the incident is alleged to have taken place, the piece raises uncomfortable questions about the moral presumptions and judgments levelled against women who make accusations of rape. It’s a subject that needs full and careful interrogation. However, the courtroom setting requires a level of realism that the narrative can’t support (there’s no footage of the incident because Sarah has destroyed the tape, but what about testimony from the cameraman and other crew? Defence council’s flagrant moralising and use of supposition would surely garner more objections), and the graphic depictions of the events, rather than revealing a clear authorial purpose, seem queasily exploitative.

But perhaps this is intentional, because the narrative offers no resolution and then shifts into a ‘you decide’ format – the stage and performers are plunged into darkness at the end, with lights on the audience only, from which we could infer that ‘society’ must make the call but actually lets the writer (Leon Jones) off the hook (and the closing music is Robin Thicke’s creepy Blurred Lines, which made me shudder in itself). Admittedly, the most sympathetic character is the prosecuting council (played by Ross Green, who also directs), whose argument in and out of court is that consenting to a particular activity once does not denote consent on every – or any – other occasion, but a scene outside the courtroom, in which Sarah tells James that all this legal wrangling could have been avoided if only he had ‘acknowledged’ what he’d done, undermines this. Is the writer suggesting that sorry is all it takes?

The potential for more discomforting voyeurism is suggested by the subject matter of Rose Biggin’s The Very Thought, but it soon becomes apparent that pole-dancing delivers the narrative of this subtly moving and funny piece rather than driving it, while also forcing us to confront how we feel about seeing and looking – especially in relation to witnessing personal revelation.

Rose Biggin: The Very Thought

From the moment Violet enters the space, carrying her ‘I don’t sweat – I sparkle’ kit bag, and greets us as her intermediate class, the associations we may have made about the physical act of pole-dancing quickly disperse; this is pole-dancing as exercise, as an activity to build strength and flexibility, to empower through ability. But soon Violet’s bright demeanour and breezy humour fade and we’re gazing upon something far more exposing than a lycra-clad body spinning around a metal pole – we see a woman gradually stripped bare to reveal the emotional pain beneath.

As Violet’s ‘intermediate’ class, we are immediately attributed with a certain level of ability, and as the ‘expert’ instructor she goes on to demonstrate impressive prowess and dexterity. Yes, she tells us, many of the moves hurt, no matter how good you are, but the more practised you become the better you get at hiding the pain. It’s a neat metaphor, and casually woven into the narrative as Violet suddenly confesses, “I’ve not had a good week,” and reveals the steady disintegration of her relationship in between demonstrating increasingly demanding moves and techniques on the pole. Layer by layer, she unpeels, and the discomfort comes not from watching ‘pole-dancing’, but from the emotional rawness on show, while she attempts to maintain her smile and teach her class. The scene in which she ‘performs’ a full routine to ‘The Very Thought of You’, her face crumpling into tears between rallies of strength, is touchingly beautiful.

But this show is also very funny; Rose is a charismatic performer, and the scene in which she muses on which of Shakespeare’s female characters would have taken to the pole, while ‘sitting’ up there herself, is well played, and diffuses the metaphor sufficiently so it doesn’t seem heavy-handed. Ultimately, the piece ends on a hopeful note – “see you next week!” – and we realise that Violet’s resilience is more enduring than we thought.

Personal resilience plays its part in Ben Callon’s writing debut, A Little Bit OCD, which explores anxiety and obsession with wit, insight and sensitivity. The main storyline focuses on Sarah (Roisin Kelly), who constantly battles inner voices telling her to hurt the people she loves, and the toll it takes on her relationship with Jack (Ben Callon); we meet Sarah’s brother (Christopher Hancock) and slightly manic sister-in-law Lucy (Stephanie Racine), whose new baby is an added source of pressure for Sarah – can she trust herself to hold her, to be near her? It starts a little stiffly, but soon loosens up, especially in the scenes between Sarah and Lucy, whose own obsession with cleanliness (she confesses to hitting the housework ‘like Nora Batty on meth’) places her firmly on the spectrum with Sarah – and the rest of us.

Ben Callon: A Little Bit OCD

Additional scenes involve direct address ‘therapy’ sessions – with the audience cast as the psychologists, perhaps? – in which characters unburden themselves with tales of love turning to obsession, a schoolyard taunt leading to a lifetime in combat against food, and Catholic guilt seeping into every interaction and thought. And it’s in these scenes that the writing really hits its stride, with stand-out performances from Christopher Hancock and Angelina Woods. Thoughtful, funny and well structured, this piece highlights the issues without fetishising them, and pulls them into the open for a proper discussion.

Anxieties and fear also drive Another Story Theatre Company’s Awake, which presents monologues from three women unable to sleep over one night in the same town. One addresses God on the eve of her marriage into a religious family, fearing that an event in her past will render her unworthy; the second must come to a decision about the future of her brain-dead husband; and the third suffers night-terrors, imaging herself into the wartime experiences of her Holocaust-surviving grandmother. The past haunts the present, and an imagined future fades into the mist that settles over the sleeping town. With solid performances (from Holly Kibble, Marina Waters and Rose Race) and subtle shifts between the three monologues, the piece is well structured, but it lacks drama, with the story about the grandmother, potentially the most interesting, is the least well developed.

Exeter-based company Substance and Shadow immerse themselves in the 1970s for their show Duplicity, which tells the story of twin brothers Tommy and Finn (both played by Midge Mullin), who grow up in a fairground family, the pair sharing dreams of escaping to London together. But after Finn contracts polio, Tommy runs away on his own to seek fame in the music business, under the cynical guidance of sinister impresario Leonard Silver. The pressure mounts and when Tommy goes missing (following a bizarre lightning-induced bout of amnesia), Leonard concocts a plan to make sure the show goes on.

Thematically packed, the narrative switches between Finn and Tommy (Mullin employing physical traits and a pair of glasses to distinguish between the two) until their stories unite around Leonard Silver’s exploitation of Finn amid much Machiavellian machinations. Incorporating direct address and dramatised episodes, the piece jumps around frenetically and suffers from a lack of focus, the performances dominated in particular by Nathan Simpson’s Silver, who comes perilously close to pantomimic villainy. And while the era and the subculture are the perfect excuse for a great punk soundtrack, there’s little exploration of the period’s socio-political resonances. Substance and Shadow have got a dedicated fanbase and the house was packed, however, which proves that although not to my taste, their work has an appreciative audience.

Imagining a scarily prescient near-future is Exeter-based Jack Dean’s funny, wise and beautifully performed one-man show Threnody for the Sky Children. Fusing poetry and performance, this multimedia lament for our lost souls, for the parts of us that could once soar, explores a forgotten past, a troubling potential present and an apocalyptic possible future. Hiding out in his parent’s attic above an everywhere town gradually being desolated by global capitalism and overrun by humans reverting to beasts, James pines for a lost love and tries to make sense of how we forgot our innate connection to the universe.

Jack Dean: Threnody for the Sky Children
The language of emotion and understanding wrangles with political rhetoric and dogma; elements of our disposable culture are analysed and critiqued (including a spot-on impression of Zizek); a representative of the US governing body of the UK (not including the independent Yorkshire Demilitarized Zone) wields words like weapons of mass deception. On the streets below, chaos reigns. Up in the attic, surrounded by his old toys and the appurtenances of a life packed away, James tries to remember the time when he could fly. Enriched by some lovely lighting design from the Bike Shed’s own Sam Hollis-Pack, Threnody for the Sky Children is an accomplished piece of work, and further proof that Dean is a writer and performer of impressive reach. The last piece I saw, it was a lovely reminder of how valuable this festival is to practitioners, to audiences and to the city’s cultural life.

Photos: Courtesy of the Bike Shed Theatre

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