Jessica Walker and Joseph Atkins bring a touch of cabaret to English Touring Opera in this intimate show, co-produced by Royal & Derngate, captured on film and directed by James Dacre with animation by Thomas Hicks.
With identity and sexuality at the forefront, Scene Unseen is Walker’s very personal story from childhood to matrimony, told in song and animation. Known for her gender defying performances, Walker is no different here in this clever piece of recitative.
Over an hour, we wrestle with the sense of self and confront our own unconscious prejudices. “This is not about gender identity – we didn’t have such things in the 1970s,” states Walker as she recounts her attempts to be one of the boys.
Emerging from behind a character can be scary, as Walker acknowledges in her writer’s notes, but this is such an inclusive, honest, and positive piece she makes it work, pulling in elements from contemporary opera, musical theatre, and storytelling cabaret.
The animation gives context to the words and situations, a glimpse of memory from years back, the kind of half-recall we might have as we slip into sleep. It is a fine contrast to Walker’s performance direct to camera – and us, the audience.
The musicals created by Walker and Atkins are not in any way predictable, but that makes them all the more exciting and challenging. In some ways I detect similarities to the work of Dave Malloy (especially Preludes) which a dash of Sondheim at his most experimental.
The music is an insistent piano, which adapts to the cycle and what is being communicated whether by loud crescendo or a pussycat caress. Atkins keeps out of the light: a key part of Scene Unseen’s creation, but not the colourful butterfly at the fore.
Walker’s stage/screen presence keeps you watching and listening, invested in her travels and experiences. By the end, she has led us through her best and worst times, those surprises that are set like landmines to disrupt our lives in tears or celebration.
Scene Unseen is filmed by David Lefeber and can be viewed on English Touring Opera’s online platform, ETO At Home, for three months from 28 September 2022. Go to https://www.scene-unseen.co.uk/ for more details and to book access.