The Pulverised, Arcola Theatre

Does anyone really win under capitalism? Alexandra Badea’s The Pulverised doesn’t think so. Even though those near the top of the pyramid living jetsetting lifestyles and rolling in cash might live comfortable lives, they are still left feeling broken and hollow. The french play, here translated into English by Lucy Phelps, is a pacy account of four victims of globalisation on different levels of the supply chain.

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Songs For the End of the World, Battersea Arts Centre

Jim Walters is the first person sent to colonise Mars. But when a global apocalypse occurs, trapping him in the Earth’s orbit and running out of oxygen, he and his guitar are left to broadcast music to the devastation below. Can anyone hear him? Are there any survivors? Will he ever know? Dom Coyote and his band the Bloodmoneys present a post-Brexit apocalypse in the gig-theatre Songs For the End of the World, a piece overly heavy on the ‘gig’ and reliant on a plot constructed of dystopian tropes. Though the story is thin, Dom Coyote’s songs are fantastically varied and plentiful, helping to gloss over any shortcomings in the script.

There’s rockabilly, 90s rock anthems, glam rock, and blues numbers with a touch of connecting story sprinkled in between. Set in Ashley Coombe, the village serves as a window into the attitudes of small, English towns of this dictatorial era – the elderly preacher woman who runs the place condemns foreigners, terrorists and space exploration whilst the rebels put on club nights in an underground bunker. The country is now called New Albion and rather than run by an individual, a corporation dictates all rules and procedures. These plot devices are predictable within a story of a dystopian future, but are simplistic enough to work within the gig-theatre format without needing much explanation. As these two tribes clash, Jim Walters is in space – a symbol of both human progress and arrogant dominion. It’s no surprise which side survives down on Earth, and that the future beyond the end of the show looks particularly bleak.

Though the story is overly familiar, the music is wonderfully varied. David Bowie’s promised influence is clear, but not limiting in style. All of the characters in this Little England kitsch/cold international corporation hybrid are suitably blown out of proportion, but feel eerily familiar in a fundamentalist-driven, isolationist Britain and a world where Donald Trump may become the next leader of its most powerful country. Staging is fairly static as per the usual gig-theatre approach, but there is some variation in movement and costume. The lighting design adds power and hope to the bleak, clinical setting.

A more substantial script and dynamic staging would lend more theatricality to the excellent set of tunes in of Songs For the End of the World; as is, it is overly driven by music and the narrative potential is neglected. That said, it would make a fantastic concept album, and the design is strong – an extra half hour of script would add polish to this fun, vibrant performance piece.

Songs For the End of the World is now closed.

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Swansong and Road to Huntsville, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Though climate change has long been a problem, political theatre often ignores it. DugOut’s Swansong faces the issue head on, placing four survivors of a global flood in a swan pedalo. A capella songs and situation comedy bring plenty of joy and laughter to the boat, but the enormity of their survival and uncertain future weighs heavy. Will they find land, or will they kill each other first?

Like the start of a joke, hippy vegan Bobby, posh boy Steven, gym bunny Claire and nihilist Adam are on a boat, and have been for at least a little while now. They’ve already worked out exactly how to wind each other up, which generates the comedy that keeps Sadie Spencer and Tom Black’s script from becoming too heavy. The lightness contrasting the serious of their post-apocalyptic waterworld tips more towards comedy, but the balance mostly works. As they make plans for rebuilding the world to the vision they are creating from scratch in Bobby’s journal (obviously with plenty of arguments), there’s a natural progression towards eventuality – will they find land and survive, or will they all die on the pedalo?

The characters are rather stereotypical for the sake of comedy; despite this there are some poignant moments of understanding and empathy. They are effectively performed but somewhat lacking in depth, though sung interludes between scenes and the resolution help negate this unsatisfaction.

This spirited production is a relief from more sombre approaches to political issues, and a good laugh at that despite its shortcomings. Road to Huntsville is an entirely different beast, though the topic is just as infrequent on British stages. Theatre maker Stephanie Ridings stumbles across a documentary about women who fall in love with prisoners on America’s death rows. Thinking this could be the start of a new play, she latches onto the subject and delves into a world that she doesn’t understand, but doesn’t want to judge. As her research leads her further down the rabbit hole, she emerges in the “death penality capital” of the country, Huntsville, Texas.

Road to Huntsville shares Ridings’ process and turns it into a story of itself. More of a documentary, there are no preconceptions – we are in a theatre to hear about her findings. The curious but emotionally detached beginning takes its time to cave into emotional connection with the people she meets who are at the mercy of a state sanctioned killing machine. This show is a slow burner, but by the end, her passion and rage against the death penalty rally the audience to her side. Her frustrated helplessness hangs heavily in the air as she tries to return to normal life, then she does the same to us, sending us out into the busy joy of Summerhall. Though it makes for melancholy, lingering reflection, Ridings’ reminder that not everyone has the privilege of living in a country where the government won’t kill you if you commit a crime.

Swansong runs through 29th August, Road to Huntsville runs through 28th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Never Ending Night, The Vaults

“Immersive” is a trendy term that’s rather overused in theatre at the moment. But what is it, exactly? The same can be said for “site-specific” and “interactive” theatre. Audiences are seeking out alternative theatre experiences that aren’t just sitting in a dark room and watching actors tell a story, and theatre producers are obliging, using the aforementioned vocabulary often too liberally and consequently diminishing the words’ meaning. Established practitioners of immersive performance include Punchdrunk, probably the most well-known, Secret Cinema’s events that are part cinema and part theatre, and Coney’s use of game design to empower audiences. Many other companies and individual shows also describe their work as immersive; some definitely is whereas others is less concretely categorised. CCSD lecturer Dr. Gareth White says the accepted definition of immersive theatre is a production that contains “installations and expansive environments, which have mobile audiences, and which invite audience participation.” But is that entirely accurate?

Never Ending Night at the Waterloo Vaults is immersive in that the audience is freely mobile in a space fully kitted out as a bunker for the survivors of a global pandemic. The audience is first taken through decontamination, where personal effects are checked and white boiler suits and masks are provided. There is a distinct air of authority that the audience dares not violate. The first part of the performance is set outdoors in one of the two large rooms that contain the show. It’s a desolate street, with bodies of the living, barely living and dead. Lighting guides the audience to individual moments, promenade style. This provides clear, concise exposition to the world created. Narratives overlap, creating snapshot moments of grief and desperation, but it’s not frantic. Soldiers in boiler suits take the last survivors and the audience into the next room, where the rest of the play happens.

The audience can spend as much or as little time with any given character as they chose. There are several options: following a character, staying in one space to see what characters come and go, or move to scenes as they occur; each will create a totally different experience. The survivors have all been in this bunker for quite some time, and a reference to nearby Waterloo Station adds an element of site-specific performance, but doesn’t seem important to any particular narrative. The structure gives the audience autonomy, but with a large cast, individual characters have few scenes so it’s hard to connect to their experiences and learn about the little details of their lives.

There is no interaction between the audience and the actors, which raises the question of whether or not Never Ending Night is fully immersive. Can immersive theatre not be interactive? My initial instinct is to say no, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily correct, showing the issue with the lack of a standard definition. The audience here, even in provided costume, are merely observers with an unclear role. They are not residents of the facility, nor are they government officials. Even if they are there to observe, the reason why is never made clear.

Created by a company of actors trained in the Meisner Technique of character development, this quietly ending piece feels more like an extended acting exercise. It would certainly be possible for the audience and actors to speak to each other without disrupting the main scenes at any given moment, but create a new level of intimacy and depth. There characters are interesting enough to want to engage with them, but the audience was invisible. There are numerous encounters between characters and emotions are often running high, which make for excellent bursts of dramatic tension. These are too brief, within a form that goes on for too long, however. The ensemble cast remains excellent, with immense focus and emotional truth Meisner would commend. The gentle ending is a powerful anti-climax, after which the audience is set free into the night.

It is a well-managed, polished piece of ensemble theatre, but the opportunity to develop a relationship with the characters is not provided. They would continue to function and interact in their world with our without the audience present. Consequently, this is a great production for those looking for an unconventional theatre experience without the pressure of audience participation. The setting is clear, but what isn’t, is what the audience is meant to take from the experience. Still the performances are good, as is the design and it’s a worthy attempt at a form that is still developing, whether or not it really counts as immersive.

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