Light, Pleasance Dome

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If the Thought Police are an uncertain, shadowy presence in Nineteen Eighty Four, somewhere between self-regulating myth and chilling reality, then in Theatre ad Infinitum’s new show they are a constant presence. Light imagines a world in which, thanks to new technology, not just our actions but the workings of our minds are under surveillance. In light of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent to which we are routinely monitored, it doesn’t seem miles from plausibility.

Given what we have learned about surveillance, there is no doubting the necessity of discussing its dangers – especially considering the astonishing lack of outcry about the current situation. Theatre ad Infinitum do so through the means of sci-fi and dystopia, genres which often have more to say about the present than the future. This particular future is a grim one, where fears of terrorism have been harnessed as a means of robbing citizens of their basic right to privacy. And there is something chillingly uncanny about the rhetoric with which these imaginary politicians put a positive spin on the ability to see into the minds of others.

Light is over reliant, however, on the metaphor that gives the show its title. Light is used by GCHQ as a codeword for meta-data, but it also has the advantage of creating some rather striking images on stage. Theatre ad Infinitum take this connection and run with it – so far that it almost pulls the show off its intended course.

The company’s central visual device is the use of LED torches, which only illuminate limited segments of the stage at any one time, leaving everything else in the dark. This allows for several startling, nightmarish moments, as well as some slick manipulation of our perceptions. But it is also limiting to the scope of the piece. Where in Translunar Paradise and Ballad of the Burning Star the formal constraints imposed by Theatre ad Infinitum were what made the shows focused and distinct, here it begins to feel like an unwieldy albatross flung across the company’s shoulders.

The story, of a citizen who eventually attempts to break the state’s control over the mind and defy his own tyrannical father in the process, is vital to the show. But thanks to the formal limitation, its telling is not always clear. The action is wordless save a few short projected sentences, underscored instead with an impressive – and often impressively thumping – soundtrack. It is often more cinematic than theatrical and it is not helped by the restrictive space and limited sightlines found in the Pleasance Dome.

One of Theatre ad Infinitum’s greatest strengths as a company is their ability to reinvent themselves with each new production. Light is another audacious transformation, but one that sadly falls short of the high standards set in previous years.

Photo: Alex Brenner.

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Dirty Great Love Story, Pleasance Dome

Originally written for Exeunt.

You know the one about boy meets girl, right? A drunken romantic encounter, ensuing awkwardness, years of near misses and friendship and dancing obliviously around one another. Dirty Great Love Story, the sharp new two-hander from writing and performing duo Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna, ticks all of these boxes, but with enough charm, wit and everyday poetry to transcend its predictable romcom trappings.

As the pixellated heart emblazoned on a banner at the back of the stage suggests, this is a distinctly modern vision of love. If it was a Facebook relationship status it would read “it’s complicated”. Richard is short-sighted, socially inept and afflicted with a clumsy sense of humour; Katie is just out of a messy break-up, with a “stabbed up heart” and a short dress. Their pairing on a boozy night out, shoved together by their tipsily crowing mates, is as inevitable as it is cringe-inducing.

The comedy that this seemingly clichéd set-up generates, however, has the intelligence to surprise and delight. Cruder than your average Richard Curtis film, Marsh and Bonna incorporate all the groaningly familiar embarrassments of contemporary single life, from cloakroom fumbles to untimely vomiting, all related through unlikely poetry. A sparkling fusion of drama and spoken word, the pair’s ingenious rhymes – owls and bowels, anyone? – span the ridiculous and the romantic, remaining deliciously sweet while refusing to sugar-coat the often bewildering, humiliation-ridden world of 21st-century dating.

For all that it resembles the much maligned romcom, Marsh and Bonna’s show also unveils the many lies implicit in the genre that it owes its creation to. Romance is skewered by realism; as Richard eventually tells Katie, “I love you realistically – I wouldn’t die for you”. There is a playful, teasing commentary on the familiar story arc, with one periphery character knowingly remarking that the turn of events is “just like a movie”. Wisely, Marsh and Bonna never taken themselves or the show they have created too seriously.

But the piece’s greatest charm lies in its unfashionable note of hope. Despite all the binge-drinking, apathy and casual sex that are usually held up as indictments of modern twenty- and thirty-something life, Marsh and Bonna find optimism rather than gloomy inevitability in the position of their generation. As they put it, “fucked up is just fine” and slightly ugly romance can be every bit as intoxicating as the airbrushed kind. Just as poetry can sometimes be clumsy, unconventional and a little bit dirty, so can love.

US Beef, Pleasance Dome

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Originally written for Fest Magazine.

Ever wondered how your burger got from cow to cardboard container? It’s certainly not the first time the ethically dubious practices of fast food corporations have been on the agenda, but Missing String Theatre Company manages to broach such issues with fresh laughter in this satirical take on America’s fiercely consumerist obsession with cheap meat.

Central character Buck, our narrator of sorts, starts at the bottom of the fat-oiled corporate ladder as a door to door meat salesman for the oddly unsavoury sounding Meatbox, a corporate monster promising a pseudo-democratic vision of meat for the masses. Through his personal story of grubby corporate climbing, Missing String deploys its satirical barbs using a wacky blend of comedy, drama and country music. From soulless marketing speak to the hypocrisy of the supposedly ethical consumer, little emerges unscathed.

This is also a satire in which the consumer, and therefore the audience, is deeply implicated. As one fast food outlet employee accusatorily tells us, we are “the cog that turns this machine,” the demand that drives the increasingly unethical supply.

This dirty complicity, however, is not taken as far as it could be. By making only half-hearted attempts at addressing spectators, Missing String neglects an opportunity to make the audience squirm and, as a result of that discomfort, think. It might make you pause before tearing off that next chunk of meat, but this is unlikely to create many vegetarians.