Disconnect, Ugly Duck

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Imagine a production of Waiting for Godot with more characters, set in space, where the audience chooses the outcome of the story. What you are picturing is probably gloriously weird and kitschy. But now add clumsy dialogue, some poor performances and a loosely applied Brexit analogy, performed on a set that looks like it’s built of cardboard and/or they ran out of paint. If your mind’s eye makes a different picture now, it be more accurate.

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Space Play, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Michael Davis

In recent years, tales of space travel have been making more of an appearence in theatre. While the Royal Court showcased Alistair McDowall’s X last year, the Fringe scene has had mature, high-quality productions of its own – including Emily Holyoake’s Stasis and Curious Directive’s Pioneer. Space Play, which has been running at the VAULT Festival, looks at the aftermath of orbital collision with space debris, inspired by the events of the film Gravity.

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Songs For the End of the World, Battersea Arts Centre

 

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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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Respawn, Hackney Attic

logosrespawnI really want to like Stars or Mars latest sci-fi offering, Respawn. Not because I like science fiction – quite the opposite. I really don’t enjoy the genre in any form, be it films, books or television. There isn’t much sci-fi theatre out there, though. The only sci-fi production I can ever recall seeing is Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light. Light has the distinction of being my first five-star review, and it had nothing to do with the genre. I want to continue bucking my own trend by liking science fiction theatre (if you can call loving one show “bucking a trend”), but it can’t happen with Respawn.

The primary issue with this play is the script, a combination of Pinteresque vagueness and Beckettian lack of action set in a technology-ridden future. I’m sure playwright Susan Gray has an idea in her head of what she wants to communicate to the audience, but it struggles to transfer from page to stage. Her script is set in a world where people become artificial intelligences (AIs) when they die, but no clear message came through the muddled story. Characters were not named, instead referred to with pronouns. This added to the confusion. The programme states that two actors played multiple characters, but not all of the characters were clearly distinguished. Gray herself is credited with playing three roles, but two were so similar they seemed to be the same person. Melanie Crossey had a much clearer performance, playing an AI as a voiceover that lives in a hotel and interacts with living people, and the AI “in person”. Another structural issue lies in this occurrence: if the AIs don’t have bodies, why are we seeing them wearing Phantom of the Opera masks and performed as otherwise completely naturalistic characters? Even if the storyline were to be a clear-cut narrative, there is no overriding theme other than the idea that the AIs want to be human again, but can’t be. It is an interesting idea, but one that can serve as a starting point rather than the crux of an entire play.

Crossey’s performance is a saving grace of this production. With a confident but relaxed stage presence, she holds this convoluted one-act together. She is obviously a skilled performer that deserves the challenge of meaty, contemporary characters. A sound designer is credited, but no director, lighting director or script advisor. These creative roles would be a wise addition to the company’s upcoming Camden Fringe productions.

The Hackney Attic is an unconventional venue, more of a cabaret or comedy venue that a theatre. At the top of a cinema, it is a long, white room with tables rather than rows of seats and a staffed bar in the room. The stage lights are either on or off, the dressing rooms can be seen through a curtain, and a paint job is needed in order to achieve blackout. The space needs some alterations to become suitable for a wider range of performance styles, but the location is great. There was also no signage warning audiences of the strobe light effect that occurred several times in the play.

Furthering the sci-fi theatre genre is certainly a noble pursuit, as it is a genre sorely neglected. LA has Sci-Fest, but London is only this year bringing a celebration of the genre to the fringe at Chelsea Theatre in October. There is huge potential to reach a brand new audience base who spend their weekends at comicons and cosplay events rather than at the theatre. I admire Gray’s aim of developing science fiction theatre, but first she needs to continue refining her own craft.


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