“not just funny but well-structured with a neat ending”
‘I’m vegan!’ blurts out white, wealthy Mai on first meeting black, broke Mo, an instant assertion of her right-headed and socially conscious credentials. To Mai, of course, Mo has no need for such credentials, so the two progress immediately to probing each other’s commitment to saving the planet and changing society. They declare their attendance at climate protests and refusal to take Ubers, except in exceptional circumstances. They abhor any organisations with questions hanging over their right-headedness and social conscience. As their relationship nervously moves through the gears, an arms race of committedness commences. They move into Mai’s inherited home, negotiate the minefield between their respective privilege and realism and wind up living the reductionist result of their posturing, existing indoors, without gas or electricity, eating chickpeas and chanting daily their promise to preserve the earth’s resources. Inevitably, the relationship frays, from about the moment they are forced to eat Mai’s pet goldfish.
The writer of Omelette, Anna Spearpoint, plays Mai with spot-on comic timing, as you might expect, while the promising Kwami Odoom adapts easily to the chippy interplay. The upshot is an unrelenting to and fro in which Mai’s habits, neuroses and ethical blind spots are matched with those of Mo in a stream of sparring, snogging, preaching and pledging.
Long Distance Theatre has its own pledge, to produce works that shake us while raising a smile. Anna Spearpoint’s script certainly does the latter, not just funny but well-structured with a neat ending. However, unclear which case it’s making, it doesn’t quite do the former. Our dietary threat to the planet, the contradictions of activism, the plight of the let-down-badly generation, or the death spiral of relationships all seem like good candidates. The zero-carbon nature of the production supports the idea that the play’s subject is climate anxiety, but as a snapshot of a generation desperately grasping security and meaning, it hints at something darker, helped by Tash Hyman’s direction. Wheeling round each other on a circular stage, the movement and precise lighting (Rajiv Pattani) dramatise the physical and intellectual dances the two characters must perform. Sound design (Alice Boyd) provides angsty links, slipping time forward in skips and leaps, while props appear mysteriously, indeed mystifyingly, via motorcycle-helmeted couriers (production design by Seren Noel). Accompanied by VAULT Festival’s own thundering train rumbles and dripping water, the whole ends up, like Mai and Mo themselves, a bit more apocalyptic than necessary.
“very slick with not one word, sound effect or movement out of place”
Imagine you’re trying to steal a painting. How would you manage it? Which picture would you choose? Why are you doing it? Art Heist, the newest play from Poltergeist Theatre and written and directed by Jack Bradfield, has its three protagonists consider these very questions while also exploring notions of value, identity and capitalism.
An experienced art thief looking for one last hit (Serena Yagoub), a lost soul who finds comfort in art (Rosa Garland), and a man obsessed with achieving the notoriety of the great art thieves of the past (Will Spence) all have their eye on one particular painting and will do anything to get their hands on it. From a desk positioned outside the stage space, the quick-witted Alice Boyd narrates and provides sound effects for the trio’s every move. Game or real, it’s not entirely clear, and this is further muddled by Boyd’s appearance on stage as a guard with a penchant for the trumpet.
The performance’s opening scenes are fast-paced and highly amusing as the three thieves and the guard establish their backstories and motivations to steal the painting. Yagoub is particularly strong here and gets huge laughs from the audience for her over the top but character-appropriate delivery. A scene in the museum’s gift shop is also delightfully playful.
The set (Shankho Chaudhuri) is entirely white apart from the occasional prop and the gilded frame of the painting in question on the back wall. Three plinths – amusingly marked Poltergeist I, II and III respectively with museum-style descriptions – and the frame are enough to establish that we are in an art gallery. A white frame sits around the whole stage which the characters either walk over or around which also aids in confusing reality and fiction. The lighting (Lucy Adams) is very well done and a scene in the gallery of sculptures where the stage is plunged into darkness except for Boyd’s flashing torch is masterful.
The use of multimedia is the production’s most impressive feature. After opening gambits, Boyd switches on two screens either side of the stage which are linked to two portable cameras. One camera is initially positioned high-up on the wall like a security camera while the other captures more mundane scenes such as Garland making a sandwich. These cameras eventually move around and are used in various clever ways. Spence sits on the floor, his feet against the stage’s frame and films his feet edging along as if he is walking along a building ledge. Yagoub positions the camera at an angle to make it appear as though by wiggling across the floor on her stomach that she is in fact scaling a building. At one point, an audience member even becomes a camera man!
There is meaningful commentary to be found in Art Heist, but it is not frequent enough to really pack a punch. Spence tells the play’s most interesting anecdote about how it was the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 that catapulted this previously relatively unknown portrait into fame. The painting’s gold frame is also used excellently at the performance’s end to drive home ideas about narrative and how much more there is so much more than what we can see. Unfortunately, moments of reflection were often quickly abandoned in favour of jokes or moving the increasingly chaotic plot forward.
Art Heist is very slick with not one word, sound effect or movement out of place. Poltergeist undoubtedly know how to put on a show, but a better balance between the serious and comedy in their newest endeavour would elevate it to a new level.