A lot of firsts are happening in Balham theatre at the moment. Theatre N16 has moved from N16 to a new home in SW12, The Bedford Pub. There is little theatre in the immediate area – Tooting Arts Club is further down the Northern line, Clapham and Stockwell both have venues closer to town, BAC is a bit of a trek and there’s a new theatre tentatively in the works in Streatham, but that’s it. Their inaugural production in their new home is first play Boat by poet Kiran Millwood Hargrave; it’s also producer PIGDOG’s debut production. Hargrave’s text uses thickly layered metaphor to tell 14-year-old Girl’s experience of human trafficking. What starts off as an interactive, childlike show soon reveals the sickening underbelly of cities and towns around the world.
“Jellyfish of Sound” Jethro Cooke opens by asking the audience to create some effects that he proceeds to use with others through live mixing. This beginning should indicate that sound is a dominant feature throughout, but it only appears sporadically, and quietly, for the rest of the performance. Instead, the focus is on the story of Girl (Pia Laborde Noguez), on a Beckettian journey with no apparent beginning or end. She is 14, on a small drifting boat. Her Twin (Cristina Catalina) is with her and she keeps herself entertained with visits from the increasingly possessive Turtle (Matthew Coulton) and challenging Gull (Grabriele Lombardo). As Twin’s appearances become more rare, and Girl measures times in the phases of the moon and plans adventures with Gull to find the moon on the seabed, her boat of white pallets and surrounding sea of plastic sheeting abruptly collapses, transforming into a bedroom. Twin, unspeaking and inert, lays draped across the headboard with clay covering her face. Only the clay represents something else, as do Turtle and Gull, and oh god, the realization of her actual reality is horrifying. Girl reminds us that we can pretend none of this happens in the world, as “you believe what you want to believe” and traumatized people will construct an alternative reality in their heads as an escape, but that doesn’t make sex trafficking, child prostitution and refugees cease to exist.
Hargrave’s language is naturally that of a poet’s, but the transitions are abrupt and obvious, announced by the Jellyfish of Sound. The upstairs space in the Bedford is versatile and a good size, but the low ceilings challenge conventional lighting. As potent as the play’s message is, the script imbeds the real story so deeply that it’s easy to take it at face value, or transpose it onto the refugee boats that fill our oceans and our news. But to do so leaves large, logical holes in their world and dilutes its potency. Though a worthy first production, it feels a bit rough around the edges with some moments of vague writing despite good performances. PIGDOG and N16 clearly have great ideas, and this is a wonderful space to explore and develop them in.
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