Theatre review – A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing1 Credit Mihaela Bodlovic

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing © Mihaela Bodlovic

Sweeping us from the days before birth deep into a girl’s life, Annie Ryan’s adaptation of Eimear McBride’s award-winning novel for The Corn Exchange Theatre is a formidable journey. The adaptation itself is a work of mastery – at no point do we exit the inner narrative of the half-formed girl, instead experiencing everything that comes her way with visceral intensity.

To accomplish this, Ryan cast just one character, the girl, performed with extraordinary power by Aoife Duffin, who also presents us with every person the girl encounters, from mother, brother and uncle to a breezy roommate, and a succession of men. Her ability to portray different presences is striking – a few alterations to her voice and posture conjure up a host of folks with a variety of intentions towards the girl.

With equal economy, the stage is dressed with no more than a covering that could be carpet, could be mud, and Duffin’s costume comprises what looks like lounge wear – comfortable, unassuming and disarmingly vulnerable. Her feet are bare throughout, allowing Duffin’s talent to shine as she acts from head to toe.

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing cr Mihaela Bodlovic

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing © Mihaela Bodlovic

The story isn’t easy-going. There’s grief, betrayal and an awful lot of sex, most of elicited but less with passion than a desire for self-abasement.

Yet, this is a love story in the purest sense of the word, as the girl aims to protect her older brother and keep him safe from the tumour that afflicted him before her birth. He is the ‘You’ she refers to frequently, and when she talks of their childhood, we’re offered the impression of them hiding together from their irate ma, secure and for the most part happy.

Subtle use of sounds and lighting move us from scene to scene, and mood to mood, but truly this is a play of words; fractured, invented, poetic and bold. Duffin breathes them with every part of her being, so that when she is sore, we are sore, and when she is searching for a sense of herself in all the wrong places, we are searching for her too, so we can bring her safely home.

It’s a performance full of strength, raising questions about culpability and the tendency of victims to punish only themselves. By the end of the 1hr, 25 minute play, Duffin is in emotional tatters, running from the stage after each curtain call with palpable relief. The courage required by this show, and by the girl it focuses on, is evident on her face.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is at Tobacco Factory Theatres until Saturday 30th January. To book tickets visit www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com, call 0117 902 0344 or email tickets@tobaccofactorytheatres.com

Theatre review – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime cr Brinkhoff Mogenberg

© Brinkhoff Mogenberg

Mark Hadden’s 2003 bestseller is dream material for any imaginative dramaturg. The result from playwright Simon Stephens, director Marianne Elliott and their team is an exquisite work of art, incorporating clever lighting, movement and huge volumes of emotion.

It begins with a dog, a garden fork and a distressed 15-year-old boy. Christopher Boone (Joshua Jenkins) has trouble making sense of other people, especially when it comes to reading their expressions. Unable to lie, in many ways he is an innocent, yet one equipped with extraordinary amounts of resourcefulness and determination.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time cr Brinkhoff Mogenberg

© Brinkhoff Mogenberg

Christopher sets himself the task of solving the mystery surrounding the dog’s demise, treating it as a project, and takes us along for the ride.

And what a ride it is. Through the street he lives on, to the train station and then into the bewilderment of the London underground. At times Christopher’s sensory overload became my own, as crowds ebbed and flowed, lights fractured and sound pulsated – ringing through us, the audience, as well as our hero on-stage.

There are moments of real fear amid the overriding tension, as well as sublime beauty, magic and even peace. The scene where Christopher imagines being an astronaut is particularly elegant.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time cr Brinkhoff Mogenberg2

© Brinkhoff Mogenberg2

Joshua Jenkins is extraordinary as Christopher – as the character he reels off strings of facts, figures and theories at speed, uses the entire stage and the full scale of human emotion. The whole cast were excellent – his parents, played by Gina Isaac and Stuart Long, were especially impressive – drawing us deep into Christopher’s vibrant, sometimes alarmingly intense, world.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time cr Brinkhoff Mogenberg1

© Brinkhoff Mogenberg

The answers he finds in his search aren’t the ones he’s anticipating. If you’ve read the book, I urge you not to re-read it before seeing the play as the surprises when they come are revealed with grace as well as gut-wrenching power. As audience members we emerged exhausted but exhilarated – and, unexpectedly, understanding Pythagoras‘ theorem.

I watched the play at the Bristol Hippodrome. To find out where The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is on near you, visit www.curiousonstage.com

Review – Dumbstruck

Dumbstruck 1 (photo by Owain Shaw)

photo by Owain Shaw

Beginning with a list of things a man alone on an Alaskan island misses about home (“fingers on the back of his neck”, “salad”), this poetic, sweetly melancholy tale explores the obsessions that can come between us and our potential for happiness.

With a live soundtrack providing haunting sounds of the sea and whales (especially impressively from Carolyn Goodwin) interspliced with original song and dance, this is a multi-sensory tour of one man’s journey through love, betrayal and a hunger for connection.

Dumbstruck 3 (photo by Owain Shaw)

photo by Owain Shaw

Ted, played by Robin McLoughlin, is an expert in hydroacoustics tracking the movements of whales, when he discovers a mysterious whale and finally finds someone he can really talk to. Theatre group Fine Chisel have taken the true story of the lone 52-Hertz whale, which sings at a frequency far higher than any other species, and turned it into an emotional force of nature.

The tale carries us through Ted’s memories of his uncle Mal (played by George Williams with some excellent, simple puppetry from artistic director and performer Tom Spencer), and of fiery Fiona (Holly Beasley-Garrigan), quite possibly the love of Ted’s life, who makes some dangerous decisions. Add in the music, some audience participation (nothing too taxing, I promise), and it all contributes to highlight Ted’s current solitude in the middle of the North Pacific ocean, with only the cries of the whale for company.

Dumbstruck 4 (photo by Owain Shaw)

photo by Owain Shaw

The version being performed in the current tour has been developed from its Edinburgh Festival premiere.

It’s a joyful, tragic and deeply moving examination of our desire, and inability, to communicate effectively. Go and see it while you can. You’ll emerge struggling to find adequately effusive words.

Dumbstruck by Fine Chisel will be at The Tobacco Factory’s Brewery Theatre, Bristol, until Sat 21 June 2014, and will then be touring until 19 July. Find full dates here.

Review – Butterfly Man and Hardy Animal

Part of MayfestButterfly Man plunges you into a story from writer Nick Hunt, examining the psychological after-effects of one man’s loss, set against the world’s.

Butterfly Man, Ben played by Joe HallUsing audio and visual projection to heighten the viewers’ emotional states, this thoughtful one-hour play begins with Ben (played by Joe Hall) holding a jar containing what seems to be a real swallowtail butterfly (I’m assured it wasn’t harmed in the performance), and reliving a moment in past. The sound of the creature’s wings beating against the glass provides a constant background of noise as we watch Ben’s descent into depression following, but apparently not connected to, a tragedy in his family. Instead we are led to believe his breakdown in fact relates to a much earlier trauma, when the woodland idyll near his childhood home and all the wildlife living in it was destroyed.

The idea of a connection between mental health and access to nature isn’t a new one, and in an interview for mayfest, Nick himself explains that “the play is adapted from an essay called Flowers of the Sky by Dr. Mike Edwards.”

This is a work in progress, and while parts of it were beautiful and haunting (the scene in which Ben meets his doctor for the first time is incredible believable), others need something more. The final scene involved huge amounts of dialogue from Ben supposedly spoken to his partner (played by Amanda Horlock), but the two rarely make eye contact. I wanted them to be clinging to each other as he described discovering butterflies for the first time, and learning from them about love.

This intensity may well come, however, as the actors and co-directors welcomed for feedback after the performance, and are evidently keen to see their caterpillar of a play metamorphose into the butterfly it clearly has the potential to become.

The message is already there – that in harming our environment we risk damaging our own mental health – in fact there’s a lovely line from Ben at one point explaining that the Greek word psyche means both spirit or soul, and butterfly – binding the play’s ideas together in one neat package. Find out more at nickhuntscrutiny.com/news/butterfly-man.

Hardy Animal cr Laura DannequinOne thing definitely not lacking in Hardy Animal – written, created and performed by Laura Dannequin – is intensity. Disarming in its portrayals of the frustrations, fears and hopes of a dancer enduring chronic back pain, it explores the lengths we’ll take in a bid to restore normality, the confused perceptions we’ll face from others, and the strength required to unlearn and relearn our own body’s capabilities.

It’s a beautiful and stark work, almost poetic at times, painterly at others – using spoken work, careful lighting, the vulnerability of exposed skin, and, at last, a brief, extraordinary dance that draws the whole thing together into a moment you’ll feel you’re truly a part of. Powerful, and unexpectedly uplifting. Find out more at www.lauradannequin.co.uk.

BUTTERFLY MAN