Written and performed by Chris Goode
Director: Rebecca McCutcheon
Designer: Naomi Dawson
Presented by Chris Goode & Company
31 October – 18 November 2018
It has been two days since I saw Chris Goode’s Mirabel at the Ovalhouse, and I can’t say that I’m much closer to having formed a solid opinion on it. Of course art doesn’t have to follow a conventional formula, make sense, or have a clear meaning, but the absence of all of these does make it difficult to review! In the absence of a grownup to lead me by the hand I, like Mirabel, will simply have to do the best I can.
The eponymous heroine of our story is an eight-year-old girl who wakes up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Her parents are dead, and there is nobody with her except her teddy bear, who identifies as a Wolf. So she sets off to find a responsible grownup to tell. Tell what? Well, just… tell. Along the way, she builds a ragtag gang of friends including a rock called Baheegwing, a dog with laser eyes, an injured pilot who may or may not be a paedophile, a dog with laser eyes, and a bluebell called Salad. All of these creatures can talk, except Salad – don’t be stupid, she’s a bluebell. Chris Goode portrays all these characters, with only minor changes in voice to show dialogue (the character Urban is originally voiced with an impressively deep and spooky growl, but this is not consistent throughout).
That’s the plot, more or less, with the exception of an abrupt change of setting and mood at the end, as the story is turned on its head with a twist (I think?). The language is evocative, delivered lightly and matter-of-factly, with instances of beautiful evocative imagery, quirky abstractions, and moments that are straight-up horrifying and macabre. Goode stumbles a few times on the script, but only ever loses momentum momentarily. I am reminded throughout the piece of Douglas Adams, and his later books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series – the ones where his droll absurd humour becomes more and more erratic and difficult to interpret. At one point in Mirabel there is a brief interlude featuring an animated projection to ethereal music; the animations (by Lou Sumray) are stark and gorgeous, yet eerie in a way that brings to mind the bunyip scene in Dot And The Kangaroo, a 70s cult classic which gave me nightmares as a child.
These marriages of beauty and bizarre surreal freakiness characterise Mirabel, even down to costuming (almost-steampunk leather jacket and boots, blindfold) and set design (by Naomi Dawson – a succession of narrow strips of stage space, littered with rubble and debris, separated from one another by gauzy partitions which only become transparent when backlit). The dim lighting and ambiguity of the wreckage strewn over the stage means that your imagination – encouraged into overactivity by Goode’s lucid dream narration – fills in the gaps, and you can see the twisted hulk of a crashed airplane, a gaping fissure in the ground, or at one point an infanticidal giant lizard (although this turned out later to actually be a disembodied mannequin’s arm. Obviously). The presence of a small, sweet, naive yet determined young girl in such a dystopian nightmare enables many more such juxtaposing concepts, like Disney sticking plasters over a gaping self-inflicted wound.
For the most part, these contrasts are poignant and witty rather than self-indulgent and willfully edgy, but when the play crosses that line, boy does it cross it. I understand that instilling discomfort and confusion in the audience can be a valid artistic choice, but when done wrong, it can lead to sighing, eye-rolling, and watch-checking rather than stimulation, and unfortunately I ended this show in the former state. That said, I have spent the last two days gnawing on the concepts of this play like a (non-supernatural) dog on a bone, and I suppose that is ultimately what Goode was after. Certain types of theatregoers will find Mirabel a fascinating and challenging piece that really pushes boundaries; others will decree it bewildering tosh. Search within yourself to judge which camp you’ll likely fall into, before you decide to embark into the wilderness with Mirabel.