“This is a night intended to inform, using clever playful techniques at times, about an unsettling subculture”
The audience file into the small Camden People’s Theatre a little nervously. A man stands at a lectern, smiling and smartly dressed, as classical music plays. Nothing could feel further from the dark world of the ‘involuntary celibate’ culture that has seen murderous consequences.
For those of us not quite sure what to expect of I, Incel, written and performed by Christopher Montague, the initial effect proves surprisingly accurate. The performance unfolds as a presentation, with slides and props to boot. It’s not quite as simple as it seems, though, with dark undertones referenced as the hour passes as Montague begins to step away from his lectern and seemingly his balanced, removed persona.
As all-too-long YouTube videos made by now notorious young men identifying as incels play behind him, our speaker seems to transform. He vapes as he gazes at a long leather jacket that hangs imposingly to one side of the stage. The lighting (cleverly deployed throughout by Lucy Adams) dips and Montague briefly becomes a silhouette… before returning briskly to his speaker’s podium and persona as the video ends.
I, Incel is presented as a work in development, and at times this shows. This notion of Montague slipping into, being drawn towards, the darkness of incel culture doesn’t quite hold, which is a shame as it suggests a greater darkness that would really help throw the shadows of the piece into relief. Montague himself, while a likeable performer, is perhaps part of the reason for the production feeling a little one-note; some lines are delivered with timing just a fraction off, robbing them of the dark humour or shock value they could have offered. And when he crosses the stage to interact moodily with the hanging jacket, it’s hard to feel too moved by his brooding; his demeanour otherwise just feels too, well, nice, despite his references to seeing how close he could have come to incel mindsets in his youth.
The after-show feedback form asks how much audience members knew about incels before coming to the show, and whether the content went too far or not far enough. This suggests an apt preoccupation with some areas that will benefit from more development. It’s a conundrum; so many of those electing to come to a show on this topic will, of course, probably have a decent level of understanding already, and with that in mind the material felt rather basic. But then of course Montague and his consultant producer, Hannah Elsy, will want to ensure that this can act as a primer for those new to this especially torrid corner of toxic masculinity. It’s a balance that still needs tweaking, and a tricky one at that.
Still, criticism of a performer for being too warm and content for being too accessible hardly feels fair. This is a night intended to inform, using clever playful techniques at times, about an unsettling subculture that has manifested in tragedy before and will, one fears, do so again. Any production designed to bring this into the sunlight is to be commended, especially one as thoughtful as I, Incel.
“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.