Mental, Vaults Theatre

Kane Power may sound like the forgotten antagonist in Glen A. Larson’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but in truth he’s the creator of one of the Vault Festival’s closet gems; an affecting and effective reflection on his mother Kim’s bipolar disorder. She’s both subjectified here, in song, in monologue, and subject making; the trauma that’s necessitated this talking cure for her son’s damaged id.

It’s a sincere attempt at tracing the pathology of his own pain. It’s therapeutic art. And who doesn’t like a bit of that? After all anyone who tells you they haven’t been royally fucked up by someone is either boring or lying.

Power’s keen to stress this is a show in development. It’s a snapshot of a live situation after all; a 20 year struggle between mother and son with new material presenting regularly. We get an anecdote as recent as last Christmas. “This show may fail” as an exploration of these intangible, perhaps intractable difficulties, he confesses. It’s a sweetly defensive opener, an early show of vulnerability.

In my performance there was a smile for the pretty girl in the front row with a notepad whom he summarised may be writing this review instead of me, but there’s no need to flirt with the critics on this one. The show’s charming all on its own. Bourgeoning it may be, but the material and design is strong enough that it already feels fully-formed.

One’s particularly struck by Kane’s observation, adopting his mother’s persona, that the theatre, uniquely, offers the best simulacrum of a bipolar sufferer’s experience – the live flight of ideas, the transition between different plains of consciousness, the collision of fantasy and reality. But the sobering, perhaps even humbling insight, is that theatre normalises such thinking. That metaphor imbues the piece with an important bit of destigmatising purpose. It’s not didactic, there’s not a trowel in sight. It just feels like a show where form and content are perfectly aligned.

That content is grand, thanks to Power’s assured multimodal performance; a show that employs live electronic composition as the aural bridges between monologues. Occasionally these overlap, thanks to some nifty sound design. The resulting aural psychedelia mimics the cluttered consciousness of the bipolar sufferer. It’s an imaginative means of dramatizing what for many will be an abstraction. Such craft and illumination deserves a big audience. Go see it.

Hip, Vaults Theatre

The Vaults on Leake Street is the right venue for a show about squatting in a dead woman’s house and life. Beneath Waterloo Station, in a subterranean space, theatre’s squatting in it.

The artist Jolie Booth, in a one-feminoid show, billed as “extra-live” (etiquette free with assumed added value for the audience), is there to sell us on hedonism, youthful creativity and the romance of the commune. This involves conflating her beatnik lifestyle from 2002 with the life of the lost hippie who once occupied the same Brighton premises. Rummaging through her stuff – letters, photos, diaries (death giving implied consent) – snapshots of a lost consciousness, Booth becomes, in every sense, an Anne Clarke habitué. She revisits her spiritual landlord frequently, hunts for biographical clues, traces relatives, and on the basis of close identification with the woman and her creative aspirations, addictive personality and libido, builds a show out of fading impressions.

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It’s an interesting piece, perhaps because our host has anointed herself as the dead woman’s spiritual successor. There’s talk of sharing wavelengths, being linked by something more universal than boring old genes. The lineage being traced here is sociological, cultural. Booth sees Clarke as her prototype, fatally compromised by patriarchal bullshit like domesticity and motherhood – bohemian buzzkill. In Clarke’s alcoholism, that inconveniently, when one’s trying to build a human being, obscures the last 16 years of her life, leaving blank pages, she sees a cautionary tale. We learn the artist doesn’t drink anymore, though we’re encouraged to toast the deceased boozer with a shot of tequila. This felt like shooting a gun in memory of John Lennon. At the end, one imagines the last fucking thing Clarke wanted was to be remembered with alcohol.

Your enjoyment of the show and the opportunity to interact with artifacts from both women’s lives, in a representation of Booth’s old squat, will depend on how interested you are in either. Is this self-absorption and the hijacking of biography or a novel variant on Who Do You Think You Are? One wonders about those missing 16 years. Did Clarke repudiate her younger self? Did a moment of clarity lay waste to the affectations of the past? And would someone who didn’t consent to becoming public property enjoy being ventriloquized on stage? Our host has no more idea than we do but it’s a compelling evening; a chance to watch the watcher as she pins up a proxy.

The Collective Project, Tristan Bates Theatre

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“8 new plays in 12 days” is the boast of Neil J. Byden’s company, Pensive Federation. That doesn’t refer to the running time, fortunately, rather the octet’s gestation. Two teams of bright young things perform four 10-15 minute plays apiece, devised in a flash from the zeitgeistian, millennial thought cloud that permeates the consciousness of right-on liberal luvvies with hairless balls and none.

This being a collective project, there’s a collective theme; group dynamics and the interloper, outsider or individual that arrests them, slipping the proverbial nail file into the figurative bra. In a showcase for new writing, some of these disruptors are more interesting than others. If the sellout intern of Jayne Edwards’ “Scoop” is a little obvious, the personification of well-worn debates on journalistic ethics, power without responsibility to use the old cliché, then the agency plant in a troupe of astronauts in Kate Webster’s “Lying” is more interesting; an outlier who vies to join the long-isolated group on equal terms by giving herself away.

An anthology like this is inevitably inconsistent. Some vignettes are stronger than others. When the plays aim for highfalutin social commentary they veer toward the didactic and clunky, such as Conor Carroll’s Black Mirror influenced “Worm”, that fancies itself as a satire of the imperatives informing trash TV, or Isabel Dixon’s “Glorifying” that reimagines Brexit in the form of an effete bunch of robotic socialites, who’ve become the paranoid victims of their own exclusive, monocultural mentality. Others, like Julie Burrow’s “Destruction” and Jonathan Edgington’s “Legion” play with more abstract notions of free will and group think, but lack a strong dramatic through line; more concepts than playlets. collective-project-2

For me, the two most successful pieces, Rob Green’s “Aroma” and Andy Curtis’s “Huddle”, resonated best from being tight slice of life dramas with vivid characterisation and a good ear for social tension. The former presents us with a house clearance for a recently deceased Father, Uncle and ‘arsehole’, with assorted relatives and old acquaintances sorting through old junk and memories. It deftly paints a picture of the play’s structuring absence – the dead Dickie – and manages to say much about duty, loyalty and power, in less time that it takes to microwave a Slimming World meal. Something I like to do while eating chips.

“Huddle” is a simple piece about assorted commuters sardined in a stranded tube carriage. We’re treated to a charming and funny sketch of sisters, divided by education and aspiration, who come together, along with a feuding gay couple, to prop up a prototypical vomiting reveller trying to get home. There’s acute commentary on how solidarity comes to the fore in such circumstances, and how groups thrown together this way throw up, pun intended, unexpected alliances. But that, in a nutshell, is the hook of all 8 plays – the jarring juxtapositions, social positioning and humour apparent in everyday interactions.

An enjoyable taster session of an evening then, buoyed by a smart and lively cast. Okay, writer Kate Webster’s play conflated Die Hard and Die Hard 2, but you’re allowed one mistake on the way up.

Scenes from the End, Tristan Bates Theatre

In the end there’s darkness, or at the very least a dark room at the Tristan Bates Theatre, where singer Héloïse Werner, the last of us, a one-woman Greek chorus, performs operatic odes to mortality and transience. The acoustics are choral, spiritual, melancholy. Sound lingers in the air. You’d expect the audience to absorb some of it, but then we’re not really here – not at the end.

Scenes from the End (c) Heloise Werner (2).jpgYet the end’s just the beginning. Thanks to the reverse epoch structure, three mini-acts, we’re ultimately transported from the presumed heat death of the universe to the inconsequential, devastating expiration of some other poor, no doubt unfulfilled sod, at which point the house lights go up and we mere mortals, for half an hour spectators, get to feel a little self-conscious. We’ve moved from the abstract to the personal. It’s a nice, rapey touch. Grief is personal after all; it leaves us exposed. It’s a lot to achieve with a lighting effect, but that’s the fleeting power of Emily Burns’ show – it does a lot with great economy. Werner can even sing and cry at the same time, which in a nutshell tells you what a modulated, controlled performance it is.

An opera about futility, regret, sorrow and existential angst feels timely in the year of Trump, Brexit and the death of David Bowie. If Ziggy Stardust can die then all other endings, as Werner suggests, are inevitable. Her eulogies, cut with pull quotes from luminaries such as Carl Sagan, T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare, light up the darkness. We like to think of them as immortal but Scenes from the End is here to remind us that the transmission of culture from man to boy to woman to girl is just a form of negation. In the end they’ll be no one to tell, no one to read, no one to think. But by going backwards the show can at least end on a temporal high. We still have our whole lives ahead of us, even if we’re stuck with the paradox that everything we think makes life worthwhile – literature, music, performance, beauty – showcased here, will eventually dissipate with the last memory.

Between the aural highs and emotional lows, there’s a little psychological agitation. The show plays like a visit to a hopeless schizophrenic; a woman so distraught at the prospect of death that she’s haunted by its nullifying potential. There’s no comfort for her and less for us, just confusion that humanity’s soundscape, universals like waking up and laughing, includes the temporal and lifestyle specificity of riding a motorbike. Even the interval is bluesy. Where’s the celebration of life and the optimism that one day we’ll beat the system using our cultivated genius and transcend? If writer Jonathan Woolgar has any thoughts on that, I’ll be waiting.