REVIEW! Mirabel by Chris Goode @ Ovalhouse Theatre

Written and performed by Chris Goode
Director: Rebecca McCutcheon
Designer: Naomi Dawson
Presented by Chris Goode & Company
31 October – 18 November 2018

 

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Images courtesy of The Other Richard

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.

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Images courtesy of The Other Richard

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.

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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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White by Koko Brown @ Ovalhouse Theatre

15 – 25 November 2017

Created & performed by Koko Brown
Directed by Nicholai La Barrie

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Koko Brown’s White is an autobiographical one-woman show about her experience as a mixed-race young woman. It’s about how being mixed has affected her, the privilege it’s granted her, and how it has alienated her.

The performance is a blend of spoken-word and live vocal looping, creating a moving and musical examination of self.

Brown is an exceptionally charismatic performer. Her musical talents are suburb, and her writing are engaging, clever, brilliant and lyrical. Her energy and smile are infectious. It’s an honest and often vulnerable performance.

However, I wanted the play to go deeper into the small moments. The play’s broad strokes and struggles were told with great clarity and elegance, but I found myself craving more shading and fine points.

Though we experience amazement at The Black Lives Matter march and are moved by the feelings invoked, we don’t find out what the crowd was really like. What were they saying and chanting? Was it the press of bodies that was affecting? The vibe? The banners? When so-and-so said the racist thing, was it a date? Were they confronted and how’d they take it? What did mom say? These details are often what bring me along for the ride, but were often glossed over in exchange for focus on more general themes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many moments where you relive the events along with Brown. I just wanted more of them!

It’s an important, thought-provoking piece, and Brown’s work unearths issues that we need to address.

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Glue, Time Won’t Wait @ Ovalhouse Theatre

3rd – 7th October

Written & performed by Louise Wallwein
Directed by Susan Roberts

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Photography by Benji Reid

Glue is an orphan’s journey of torn identity, nuns, rebellions, and family reunions from the wings of aeroplanes; jumping through time from childhood foster care, to the very present past, in a memorable one-woman show.

It’s an amazing story, and Wallwein’s unique blend of poetry and prose is a perfect vehicle for it.

I was not surprised to discover that the piece has been previously published as both book, and BBC radio drama. Wallwein’s words hold their own, her imagery, pacing, poetics, humour and energy hold the piece together, her performance wrapped up in infectious Mancunian charm.

The live music by Jaydev Mistry is simply sublime. His ethereal swells guide you through the piece, and transport you, lifting the performance into something beyond itself.

In fact, the whole production side of things was superb; the lighting, design, multimedia, sound, direction, and movement, expertly supporting the performance.

Wallwein has created an incredibly vulnerable piece, her life laid bare in a way that’s still very present, even decades after some of the events portrayed. The most touching moments were when the audience were welcomed into that; when the stylized narration bled into the deeply personal, and when you saw the lost child in her. And then the music would lift you the rest of the way.

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