REVIEW! Before I Was A Bear by Eleanor Tindall @ The Bunker Theatre

Directed by Aneesha Srinivasan
Performed by Jacoba Williams
Produced by Salome Wagaine
Presented by Broccoli Arts
12th – 23rd November 2019

The first show I ever saw at The Bunker Theatre was also the first I reviewed for Theatre Box: Devil With The Blue Dress, a play examining the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the light of #metoo. It seems fitting that, as the news is announced that The Bunker will be closing in March 2020 after three and a half years of being an amazing “temporary” theatre space, I should revisit it for a play so thematically similar and so very good.

Cally is a bear. She had a crazy run-in with a famous, hot, charming TV detective actor, responded the way anyone would, and now has any number of problems on her furry paws. She wasn’t always ursine, though – she used to be normal, like you. And that is the beauty of this piece: the life story we’re treated to is, up until that certain point, so very normal and relatable. From her pre-teen years, through adolescence, and into the first tastes of freedom that come with moving out of home, Cally travels through personal trials and tribulations that will sound deeply familiar for anyone in the audience who had the dubious honour of experiencing girlhood and the transition to womanhood. Eleanor Tindall’s crackling writing takes these common themes and treats them with poignancy and humour, showcasing that rare knack of taking the mundane and making it quirky, even deep. The world of schoolgirl friendships, adolescent crushes, celebrity obsessions, and first forays into sexuality are all-consuming and devastatingly impactful to those who are experiencing them, and Tindall offers us a glimpse back into that existence which we all (with varying degrees of thankfulness) have left behind.

Enter Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear. Image courtesy of Tara Rooney

Of course, it’s not all down to Tindall alone. The casting of Jacoba Williams as Cally is excellent: she jumps with perfect precision between childhood vitality, teenaged insecurity, young adult hedonism, and recently-turned-bear angst, always balancing physical and verbal comedy deftly against pathos and piercing social commentary. Director Aneesha Srinivasan brings her own creative flair to the staging, adding even more layers of meaning to an already-fertile script, as do designer Grace Venning and lighting designer Martha Godfrey, with touches that perfectly complement the play’s style and substance.

Before I Was A Bear is inspired by Ovid’s myth of Callisto, a story ripe for modern interpretation through feminist and queer lenses, which is exactly what Tindall has done. The bare bones of the plot are quite true to the source material, and there is little attempt to disguise this (anyone with a basic knowledge of Greek/Roman myth should be able to guess who a character named “Bolt” is based on, and that an affair with this figure probably won’t end well). A number of parallels are more subtle and clever, however – I really enjoyed the subtextual discussion of heteronormativity determining what “counts” as female sexuality, and the sub-inter-textual implications that perhaps Artemis and her gang of gal pals weren’t as platonic as male-dominated academia would have us believe. It is always refreshing to see portrayals of bi women which treat their female trysts as more than just physical (or for the male gaze), and [SPOILER] the theme of redemption through the love of other women – both platonically and romantically – is beautiful.

Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear. Image courtesy of Tara Rooney

Honestly, there is so much to unpick in this one-woman show that I’m wary of writing yet another review-turned-essay here… Cally’s journey is crammed with so many topical topics that it sometimes feels a little heavy-handed, although they are mostly treated with admirable nuance and deftness. (Others remain more obscure – I have some theories about the meaning behind the progressively-revealed voicenote, but I’m not sure how much it really added to the piece.) It’s absolutely the kind of show that you should go and see with your wokest queer feminist artsy theatre friends (these were certainly the types who comprised 90% of the audience on the night I was there, which made me feel very at home) and dissect afterwards over cheap pub wine in order to get the most out of it. This is not to say, however, that you need a degree in Gender Studies or even a Tumblr account to enjoy this show – social philosophising aside, it’s just bloody good dark comedy, masterfully delivered. Make sure you catch it before the run finishes, or the regret may be unbearable.

Tickets

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Previous review: Crisis? What Crisis? @ COLAB Factory

REVIEW! Crisis? What Crisis? @ COLAB Factory

Presented by Parabolic Theatre
Written by Tom Black
Directed by Owen Kingston
Featuring Jaya Baldwin, Tom Black, Zoe Flint, Beth Jay, Owen Kingston, Chloe Mashiter, Christopher Styles, and Angus Woodward
16 November – 8 December 2019

It is the Winter of 1979, or, as the journalists are calling it (to your chagrin), the Winter of Discontent, and the Labour government of which you are a small but essential component is teetering on a knife’s edge; a vote of no-confidence is looming, one that, if lost, will propel That Woman to Downing Street, workers across the country are in uproar, and you have only minutes to prepare for a meeting with George Deakin, one of the country’s most powerful unionists, in an attempt to stem the tide of disastrous industrial action that threatens to sweep your government away.

Crisis What Crisis, Courtesy of Russell Cobb (3)

Image courtesy of Russell Cobb

This is the high stakes pitch at the start of Parabolic Theatre’s latest offering, Crisis? What Crisis? at the Colab Theatre, and the start of a thrilling evening of interactive theatre, live gaming, and bureaucratic insanity.

As you enter the space (a charmingly convincing shabby office, replete with period furnishings, charts and maps galore, and a miniscule television looping historical news footage), you are given your Labour party membership card and it becomes very easy to forget that you are in the back rooms of the Colab Theatre circa 2019. As the experience commences you are adroitly introduced to the world and its dangers; the core areas of engagement are with the Economy, Civil Unrest, and Politics, and it is up to you to decide which you want to tackle. In my journey I started off in Civil Unrest, where I was responsible for brokering our first deal with the unions, and eventually found my way over to the politics area where I spent most of the remainder of the night brokering deals with MPs on both sides of the aisle to ensure their loyalty or defection in the upcoming vote of no confidence. The one I barely touched was Economics, but the its influence was felt keenly in every area as we had to double check any major decisions against the Treasury Index and the looming spectre of spiralling inflation.

Crisis, What Crisis, The Colab Factory, Courtesy of Owen Kingston (2).JPG

Image courtesy of Russell Cobb

If that brief summary sounds confusing and baffling then I have in some part succeeded in communicating the experience of Crisis? What Crisis? to you. There is an awful lot going on in the course of the evening, and you’re likely to only ever catch a small vignette of if, indeed these types of experiences often live as much in the retelling as they do in the moment. Every decision you make sets a line of dominoes falling, and every decision another attendant makes does the same. My understanding is that the crew are in large part administering a monolithic spreadsheet that tracks the various interactions between different parts of the world, all of which they manage to do while also answering countless phone calls and chopping and changing between dozens of different characters. Special mention must go out to all of the performers who do so much to create and define the world, managing to be helpful and informative fixtures without dominating, and infuse a twinkle of humour to every interaction.

Crisis? What Crisis? is not a passive experience, and if you go into the evening with the mindset of your typical West End theatre-goer you are unlikely to get much out of it. As with all such creations, you tend to get out of it what you choose to put in. So jump in the deep end, volunteer for leadership positions, choose something to care about and carve out a niche that you can thrive in. Go in knowing that, as is always the case in such events, those with the most social confidence, self-assuredness, or simply the loudest voices will often come to dominate proceedings; that said, if you do not thrive in high-intensity social interaction or manufactured stress, there are still enjoyable interactions available in quieter corners of the room, and a designated do-not-bother-me sofa space for audience members who feel overwhelmed.

Crisis, What Crisis, The Colab Factory, Courtesy of Owen Kingston (6)

Image courtesy of Russell Cobb

If, however, the brief summary I have been able to give sounds intriguing to you, then I cannot recommend Crisis? What Crisis? highly enough. The experience is tight and engaging, and no two performances will ever be the same (without giving too much away, some friends went to a performance two nights later and had fumbled their way into a much darker timeline than we did). Once again Parabolic Theatre have shown themselves to be among the premier innovators in the hard-to-define world that they inhabit, so avoid a personal crisis and book tickets now.

Tickets

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Previous review: The Play at Eight: The Monkey’s Paw by Storyfleas @ The Space Theatre