Shoreditch Town Hall, London – until 6 May 2017
This is the final year performance from students at The Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University.
The Blue Fairy (Zie Jackson) welcomes the audience into the underground world, the Department of Enchantment & Niceties (DEN). Set in the labyrinthine space of Shoreditch Town Hall’s The Ditch, the 2017 class of Theatre & Performance at London Met University guide us through a mystical, magical world complete with KGB spies, Ghostbuster terrorists and long-since dead courtiers to Shakespeare’s Danish Prince. As a final showcase of work, curator Jacek Ludwig Scarso puts DEN entirely in the hands of his students to mould and sculpt as they see fit. For this, every member of the company must be praised – there is a sub-world aesthetic to the show that is detailed and layered.
But logistically, DEN falls down. The individual performances feel exactly that, in some cases loosely linked together but without an overall narrative to support and lift the immersive experience as a whole. Initially agreeing the overriding story arc can cement the concept and more easily allow the audience to suspend disbelief. This is done is small touches here and there but doesn’t resonate loudly enough to hold the world together. The Fairy’s reference to his Sizzers and Dye experience (the highlight of the evening by Holly Barker and Martha Braund-Bond) in his opening Pixie Dust Is Precious monologue plants the idea for further down the line; likewise, the to-and-fro transitions between this and the KGB Cabaret add complexity to the first few minutes of the show, but these aren’t reflected later in the show.
From a creative perspective, there are some flashes of excellence and conceptual intrigue through DEN. Iza-Florina Porumbu’s performance as an undercover burlesque artist in KGB Cabaret is inspired – her dead-pan expression sits in stark contrast to the supposed sensuality of the act. As the compère-cum-madam of the sleazy club, Chelsea Ward injects forceful humour to accentuate the awkward pauses when the performance intentionally falls down, her personality stereotypical of the Russian cold fronted behaviour.
Likewise, the behaviours of the barmaids in Shakers is well captured and conveyed – three no nonsense, to the point ladies who talk a lot of sense and dispel prejudice left, right and centre. There is a clear chemistry between Danielle Cave, Shannagay Miller and Jessica Hoarau here, a natural flow of dialogue that shows an understanding and appreciation of the characters. The energy immediately puts the audience at ease, but the blocking needs to be considered more carefully in this space – the pillar in the centre of the room obstructs lines of sight for the audience, something that director Jamie Russell-Curtis can overcome by rethinking how the space is used.
From the bar at closing time to a surrealist, conceptual installation – as Promethea, Argyro Vlachaki is entangled in the wires that chain her to the rock, taunted by the fire she brought from the Gods to Earth as it burns all around her. Dorottya Tisza’s design envelopes the audience who try desperately not to become tangled up themselves. Some variety and developmental dialogue would add depth and further complexity to this performance.
The highlight of DEN is undoubtedly the Sizzers and Dye masterclass – therapy for the mind, body and, most importantly, the hair. Barker and Braund-Bond play with double entendre, observational wit and a knowledge of their audience base to capitalise on the comedy and maximise on impact. Braund-Bond in particular is over the top and extrovert without feeling forced.
Linking passages are integral to an effective piece of immersive theatre – the stewards must guide the audience between isolated scenes with absolute assurance, or the flow of the show must be completely synchronised and effortless from an observer’s perspective. There are too many moments in DEN when audience groups collide, left in a corridor or outside without explanation – the so-called heartbeat of the show goes off rhythm and breaks the spell that the performers cast in creating this mythical underground world. This seems to occur more in the latter half of the production; perhaps there was simply not enough time to consider these aspects before opening.
DEN is a weird and wonderful subterranean experience, muted by a few performances that don’t hold water and some logistical difficulties that can be ironed out with practice. Overall, it’s a theatrical experience that both the final year students and curator Scarso can be proud of, a stepping stone to bigger and better things.