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.

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Previous review: Crisis? What Crisis? @ COLAB Factory

Medea Electronica, Pecho Mama @ The Ovalhouse

30th January – 10 February
Created and performed by Pecho Mama: Mella Faye, Sam Cox and Alex Stanford

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With Medea Electronica, Pecho Mama have found some kind of sorcery.

The piece, a retelling of the tragedy of Medea, is half play, half live concept album. The members of Pecho Mama persistently blur the line between these two halves. They place their synthesizer and electronic drum kit prominently on either side of the stage. Front and centre is a mic stand. The stage looks like it’s set up for a concert, rather than Greek tragedy. It’s about to host both.

As the piece begins, we come to understand how this is possible.

The play dances effortlessly between song and scene. One moment, Mella Faye’s Medea will be comforting her children, or speaking to their teacher, or confronting her traitorous husband. Then, instantly, seamlessly, her reaction to that scene is pulsing all around us. It’s broadcast through musicians Sam Cox and Alex Stanford’s instruments and Mella Faye’s own soulful voice. Through this back and forth Pecho Mama weave an unbroken thread of tension through the piece. This thread grows tighter and tighter until, of course, it snaps. To glorious and terrifying effect.

Mella Faye portrays Medea as a meek, ordinary woman, pushed to the extreme end of violence by circumstance. As an audience we view her transformation with a mixture of fear, awe, and pity. We are conflicted. It’s electrifying to see her claw back her power, but the lengths to which she goes are horrifying.

Propelling the piece forward is Pecho Mama’s evocative, exciting music. Cox and Stanford’s synths are constantly driving the piece forward. They are ever-present, accompanying moments of dialogue with atmospheric drones or sharp, percussive beats. They give the piece a persistent musicality and rhythm that keeps the story flowing forward at a breakneck pace. They make music that feels true to the story’s roots as an ancient verse play, and keeps the intensity building until its inevitable breaking point. It helps as well that they’re just fun to listen to, mixing elements of 80’s synth-electronic with prog-rock to form a suitably epic and energetic sound, cleverly composed and performed with panache.

What makes the piece so spellbinding as a whole, however, is how every element comes together to amplify the emotional intensity of the piece. Medea delivers all her lines into her microphone. This, counter-intuitively, makes the piece feel more intimate. Her voice comes from speakers all around the audience, making us feel like we’re experiencing the story from inside her mind. The only people on stage are Faye, Stanford and Cox, and of the three of them only Faye plays a character. The rest of the world flows around us, just out of view. Characters pass through the world invisibly, represented solely by their voices. It is testament to the skill of all of the actors involved, and sound designer Simon Booth, that I could not tell if these voices were pre-recorded or performed live off-stage. Every moment felt completely natural, despite the layers of technological artifice.

Seeing it feels like witnessing magic, as Pecho Mama seem to conjure a whole world out of thin air. This spellworking is facilitated by Jack Weir and Mella Faye’s excellent lighting design, which begins subtle and atmospheric but gradually becomes more striking and impressionistic as our heroine’s inhibitions are stripped away; and Marie Kirkby’s costuming, which highlights Medea’s transformation beautifully.

Through their combined efforts, Pecho Mama seem to summon the truth of the story, driven forward by their music and channelled through Mella Faye.

The effect is an exquisite piece of theatre, brilliantly executed and not quite like anything I’ve seen before.

 

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