Institute, The Place


Say your only close friends are people you work with. Can you trust them to help you out if you’re struggling with your health? Martin’s mental health is deteriorating, so Daniel, Louis and Karl try their best to care for him despite their own inner demons and needing to be looked after as well. With a distinctive physical vocabulary and a masculine camaraderie, Gecko’s Institute is an absorbing look at a society made of lonely, needy people without the safety net that family can provide.

Rhys Jarman and Amit Lahav’s deceptively simple set of Victorian wooden filing cabinets is loaded with the possibility of discovery and serves as a convenient place for the characters to store their memories, good and bad. The moments that new items are revealed are a wonderfully surprising juxtaposition to the hulking, boxy structures. Lahav and Chris Swain’s lighting design dark and atmospheric, sharpened by the addition of otherwise unnecessary smoke. Both serve the choreography well, without drawing too much attention onto the design.

Lahav also directs this devised piece, and performs as Martin. Considering he is also the artistic director of the company, it is a true marvel, and a testament to his talent, that none of his production roles suffer. He seemlessly incorporates multiple languages and regular movement sequences that are tightly choreographed and emotive expressions of his characters. The characters puppeteering of each other is a powerfully visualised (and sometimes sinister) metaphor of helplessness at the hands of external forces and the support that peers can offer – or not offer. It’s a visually arresting comment on the support and limitations of others on our individual lives.

The strong sense of brotherhood imbedded in the choreography is a lovely thing to witness. There’s a physical comfort the performers have with each other that blends with the characterisation, making the moments where they treat each other badly all the more shocking. The single female character, Martin’s imaginary girlfriend Margaret, is inventively shown, through costume and movement, but her appearance in a plastic cube is anticlimactic. The whole piece starts to feel too long towards the end, though none of the scenes are gratuitous.

Institute is typical Gecko fare, but the character’s relationships and externalised emotions are the finest features in this physical theatre performance. It’s some of best, most reliable physical theatre work out there at the moment, and Gecko retain the ability to surprise as well as showcase their unique theatrical language.

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Live from Television Centre

On Sunday night, theatre people ( and hopefully others) up and down the country tuned in to BBC Four to watch Battersea Arts Centre and Arts Council England take over the former Television Centre, now a building site for luxury flats. Over two hours, four theatre companies streamed their work for live audiences in the comfort of their homes, to push the boundaries of theatre’s adaptability to the popular small screen and to challenge typical TV programming. I watched in bed and with twitter open so I could keep half an eye on #livefromTVC; it was a gloriously anarchic experiment that I hope ushers in a new era for telly and theatre even though not every element worked as well as it could have – but that’s the point of experimentation.

Gecko’s The Time of Your Life celebrates life cycles in a circular swirling movement with a “Truman Show”-style storyline of meta-television. The close-up nature of telly supports the characters’ intimacy and expressiveness well, but the narrow framing reduced their normally expansive work to a much smaller scale. I didn’t mind the spinning camera work, but twitter buzzed with complaints of dizziness. It was rough and ready, with limbs often out of the frame and movements ahead of the action, but that supports the “liveness”. Their piece wasn’t the most accessible and most suitable to open the evening either; Richard DeDomenici’s Redux Project would have been a more appealing start to non-theatre goers.

The long running Redux Project is adapted for the evening with joyfully irreverent recreations of classic moments from BBC television history. DeDomenici has a friendly, laid-back persona thinly veiling biting political commentary just as sharp as “The Revolution Will Be Televised”, but less blatant and without personal attacks. The live artist aims, “to disrupt the cinema industry by making counterfeit sections of popular films”; he satisfies with powerful alternative perspectives that are funny on the surface, but pose bigger challenges to cinematic convention underneath.

Common Wealth’s No Guts, No Heart, No Glory is a verbatim piece sharing the experiences of young women from Bradford who are Muslim boxers. It’s a powerful piece challenging stereotypes and giving voice to a demographic often ignored at best or stigmatized at worst. This worked brilliantly on telly, capturing the intensity and passion of the characters despite some strange camera angles.

Backstage in Biscuit Land by Touretteshero (Jess Thom) becomes Broadcast from Biscuit Land, the wonderful show that’s inclusive, informative, and contains plenty of biscuits and cats. Thom has a noticeable form of Tourettes that manifests in physical and verbal tics used for comedic effect in her show, and a reminder that understanding for people with disabilities is still lacking. In a more surreal moment, Thom reminisces about a particularly funny tic about Keith Chegwin in a quiet theatre; cameras then reveal Cheggers there in the live studio audience.

The variety of the evening reminds audiences of the power of live performance and its relevance to everyone. I’m certain that anyone who watched would be able to find something appealing in the evening, and hopefully discovered a company or artist previously unknown to them. Even if it was mainly theatre makers and goers that watched, TV can still reach audiences that are otherwise unable to travel to an individual performance. At best, those who don’t consider themselves theatre people will have found pleasure in the event, and there’s hope that the powers that be discover there is room for dancing biscuits, physical theatre and political performance on our small screens as well as our big stages.

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Missing, Battersea Arts Centre

Lily is an ordinary newlywed with a good job, but something isn’t right. She’s reserved, doesn’t join it at parties or nights out and goes through life disconnected, as if it were a treadmill. With the aid of a mysterious doctor-type figure, Lily relives past memories and important life events. A collage of dance, movement, light and sound, Missing bombards audiences with one character’s family history and rediscovery of her repressed self.

The predominant element of this production is movement. Some sequences have a strong dance influence, others are more abstract, capturing relationship dynamics between two people. Still others are violently fitful as Lily wrestles with parts of herself she would rather forget. Coloured backlighting creates faceless, silhouetted dancers who form the world around Lily. Her movements, in contrast, are usually restrained or awkward, including the duet with her new husband in their marital home as they navigate space with the newfound addition of the other. Memories of her mother, a sensual nightclub dancer, further emphasize how uncomfortable Lily is in her own skin. A particularly striking scene shows Lily at work with her glowing laptop, coffee cup and other daily items that just won’t sit still as she tries to work. They tentatively settle, then fly around the room, always just out of reach. In Lily’s life, everything moves confidently around her and she struggles to keep up. The audience empathizes because like Lily, we all experience moments in life where we feel disconnected from everything around us, as if we live in a grotesque dream world.

Lily decides to see some sort of doctor, a psychologist, perhaps. In a more literal interpretation of the counseling process, he removes a glowing light from her, placing it in a cardboard box. On a further visit, the doctor creates a storyboard of images from Lily’s past and presents them to her without judgement. These events provoke extended memory sequences from Lily’s childhood, with toddler Lily as a bunraku-style puppet. All of her memories take place in glowing frames, with performers behind. The effect created is one is one of large-scale Polaroid photographs that move across the stage. The lighting skillfully conceals the performers holding the frames and the space around them so the frames and their contents appear to float in the darkness. It is a powerful nostalgic effect, akin to watching fragments of one’s own retro ghosts on 1980s VHS home movies.

Two treadmills add a flowing quality to the set and choreography; the performers quickly slide them about to rearrange the stage space and direction of movement through space. Lily is at times caught up in this flow and cannot get off, other times she observes the pace of those around her whilst she herself is not travelling. This is one of the most unique features of the production and one that thoroughly enhances the visual and metaphorical production elements.

Sound is constant or near enough so, either cheerful and musical or a high, droning tone. Dialogue is not an important feature; often the sound drowns out the speakers so that the audience can hear speech but not discern what is being said. Several languages are used: German, Spanish, English and others. None of them is predominant, but the language is not the focus of this piece and it is easy to discern what is happening from the movement. The speech often adds another layer to the soundscape, enhancing the universality of Lily’s inner turmoil.

Missing is a feast of the senses and I struggle to find fault with any visual aspect of the production, though I would have liked to get to know the characters in more detail. The episodic, dreamlike structure leaves the story open to interpretation and to personally connect with several themes and issues presented.

I went with the year 10 GCSE Drama students at the school where I teach part time. Most of the students go to the theatre regularly but none of them had seen anything like Gecko’s Missing before. Each of them had their own interpretation of the production, further proof that Gecko’s work speaks to each of us on a deeply personal level.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.