Freak, VAULT Festival

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A thing wot I learnt from theatre: there are people in the world that have a genetic disorder which gives them super stretchy skin. Whilst this is a great/horrifying party trick, historically it meant that people with this condition could join a travelling sideshow.

Nathan Penlington could be called a freak by those inclined to use such dated, derogatory language. He has a rare genetic disorder that, in him, manifests as hypermobility and chronic pain. But in other people it can make their skin stretch excessively. Penlington’s long-running fascination with sideshows combined with his own health issues, led him on a journey to a town in Florida with a unique history. His findings in the States, his research into sideshow culture and history, and a dash of disability rights combine to make solo performance/TED Talk work-in-progress Freak.

Still very much finding its feet and theatricality, Freak is an engaging lecture with a charming, historical bent. Penlington’s awkward, hipster charm is engaging but there’s little variation in tone. Some moments are more serious than others, it but otherwise levels out at quirky/jovial. He’s laid back and comfortable on stage, which lends a conversational tone that’s relaxed though not particularly theatrical.

His research and knowledge is evident (and impressively thorough), though it hasn’t quite come together into a coherent throughline and message – which is to be expected from a work-in-progress. There’s some magic, some chat about disability rights and disabled people’s role in society and some narrative progression, but the structure isn’t quite developed enough yet to hold these elements together.

Freak‘s potential is clear and the content engaging, but there’s work to be done on the delivery and structure. It’s in a great state for a work-in-progress and Penlington’s passion is infectious. It’s certainly worth catching in a more polished state.

Freak runs through 26 February.

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