Rear View, IOU Theatre. The Barge, 5, 6, 7, 8 May.
“You’re seeing me as I see myself”, says the young woman in a white dress, stepping out of her pose as life-drawing model to come to life – or at least into a life remembered. As a device, asking us first to study her form, and then having us realise we are in fact looking at an old woman as herself in her younger days, and that we are to travel back in time to the places of her youth, it is startlingly original, and utterly beguiling. I am a sucker for participatory and properly immersive theatre, and this was a masterclass – literally: we start with the audience being given pencils and paper and a real life drawing lesson; utter bliss for me, and like much of the show, strangely relaxing, even meditative, setting the pace and tone of the action to follow.
We moved then to the quirkiest and most memorable aspect of this production – a unique ‘rear view’ bus, created for the production from the concept and design of David Wheeler, the artistic director of IOU Theatre, who also directed the show. Seated in the open air on a steep bank of seats, wearing headphones and facing backwards, you move through the streets of Brighton accompanied by gently ambient music, while the scenery unspools behind you, and car drivers and pedestrians slowly stop, and stare, and wave. It’s profound, dream-like, and marvellous.
The young woman appears at intervals on the streets, and delivers her words to us through the headphones from afar. It had the effect of making the whole of the street scene the stage, and made every trivial event – a pregnant woman carrying a toddler, a man offering his friend a pint from across the road – seem magical and loaded with meaning. It also meant the landscape and its infinite variety sometimes battled with the young woman for our attention – especially when unexpected events occurred, such as a man ostentatiously relieving himself over the side of the promenade just behind the actor – but she dealt with the challenges of remaining in the moment and in character admirably. The role, which was created by and shared between two actors (Cecilia Knapp and Jemima Foxtrot – alternating performances) with backgrounds in writing and performance poetry, was for our show played by Knapp. She is primarily a poet rather than an actor, and she is clearly riding high, with her debut collection out this year with Burning Eye Books and a play premiering at the Roundhouse next month. The short monologues were lyrical and rich with imagery, if occasionally drifting towards cliché (did her character really remember playing cricket on Brighton beach with driftwood? What driftwood?) and delivered in the ‘slam poetry accent’ which seems de rigeur these days, whether you hail from Harrow or Hackney.
The story line is slight, and elliptical, which works well, as a convoluted narrative would have been hard to follow given the distractions around us; however I would have liked it to have been entwined more with Brighton itself, to have more of a sense of place; I felt the story – of the loss of a mother, a young woman searching for connection, and always leaving, only to return – could have been anywhere; when we stopped by the gasworks or by a beautiful hidden walled garden which our vantage point allowed us to see, I wanted her to acknowledge these places, which interested the audience as much as her story. I felt too that the spell was chipped a little – if not broken – by her breaking the illusion of simply disappearing from view and reappearing, by getting into a car driven by a Festival member of staff. It felt like seeing the mechanism behind the curtain.
Overall however the effect of the show was incredibly filmic, epic, and utterly charming. A highly original production, beautifully orchestrated using the city itself as its ‘cast of thousands’ – and a bus which got me enormously excited about the possibilities it offers for immersive theatre. This is a company with a long history of exciting and innovative productions, and Rear View is no exception.
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