After the Wave- a review

I love physical theatre and wanted to love this so very much.  It is often thrown around as an insult that a piece of work is “studenty”.  Indeed, it conjures an image of poor performances, theatrical clichés, lazy tech and an appearence of trying too hard.  But this is insulting not to the piece it is aimed at more that it is insulting to the students who stage work superior to that.  Work that beats other contenders for a coveted place at festivals such as Scarborough’s NSDF.  So when this evenings performance was called “studenty” by a friend of mine I had to sit back and think- this was created by students and recent graduates, and therefore poeple who are still learning their trade.  I’m a student, I still have a lot to learn myself- it can be difficult in theatre to see when something is truly good but, even the least educated person on the subject can always tell when something is bad.

Physical Theatre Scotland’s production, After the Wave, staged as part of the Manipulate Festival was filled with stunning imagery, beautiful puppetry, a strong ensemble and some genuinely touching moments that encouraged sniffling from those surrounding me- if not full blown tears from others.  But as good as it was, it wasn’t great.  It would be unfair to both PTS and to Students to call this piece “studenty”.  What it was, was almost phenomenal.  Many shows can be dismissed as being bad and in some ways that’s better than having to say a piece was almost phenomenal.

Despite a clearly imaginative team behind it and some amazing use of live music and simply props the piece was let down in one very big way- After the Wave is a 50 minute show forcing itself to fit an 80 minute time slot and it is in this that it suffers.  And boy does it suffer.

Set during the events of the 2004 Tsunami which claimed the lives of thousands, it is already guaranteed to be an emotional ride.   The stage is bare, music plays and a mother and daughter enter, dressed for a day at the beach.  They dance about the stage and then… continue to dance.  After what seems like rather longer than is comfortable they are joined by more cast members who take to the front of the stage and humorously point out the sexy chaps in the audience (I didn’t get pointed at- but that is not the reason for my negative opinion).  They are joined by many other beach revellers and the mime work is a joy to watch- even if one of the male cast members doesn’t know how to hold an invisible bat!  The beach revellers continue to revel, and party, lovers walk across the stage, a mother brings her new born baby to see the crystal ocean.  A rather brave move using a real baby and this was essential in order to create the emotional reaction to come.  As lovely as the opening scene is to watch, to see the happiness and joy, the calm before the literal storm it just went on… and on… and on… and on.  I couldn’t see how long it ran for but if it was shorter than 15 minutes it was only just, but felt closer to 20.

This was truly a shame and speaking to others in the bar afterwards it became clear that the length of the opening scene was amongst the greatest complaint.  It went on so long that one almost longed for the tsunami wave to rise and change the scene.  When the wave did come however we were treated to the first truly stunning scene of the piece.  Something that is likely to stay with me for some time.  Cast members dressed as large black birds, some on stilts swooped onto the stage, creatures of hell brought by the violent storm overpowered the happy families and party people.  A nightmarish scene of terror that felt like a much needed change in the mood and attention grip of the piece.  But once it was over we returned to the repetitive movement of before.

Cast members- at least the survivors- came onto stage one by one or occasionally in pairs.  Broken, distressed and ghosts of their former selves.  What could have been a very powerful scene became yet another overlong collection of repetition.  Moves were repeated ad nauseum and again you lost all sympathy and feeling for the characters.  Another criticism heard about this scene was the sense of isolation each character or pair emanated.  Sure, some would be isolated, but there was also at this terrible time a sense of comradery from many and it would have been nice to see more of this working together.

One piece that, considering the record so far, was disappointingly short was a scene involving characters showing pictures of the missing.  This could have been laboured a little longer and made more of as it really shows the human loss and devastation in such a powerful way and its sad that when other scenes were mercilessly overlong that this one was the opposite.  It seems that the creative team just couldn’t get the length of scenes right.

Another very strong sequence involved puppet ghosts of the dead visiting the living.  This was astonishing, powerful, emotive and gave goose bumps and teary eyes.  At one point the ghost of the mother and baby enter and this was a sad and powerful sequence.  After this the mother from the start dancing, who had been looking for her daughter throughout was reunited with her child.  What should have been an emotional scene was sadly predictable from the midway point and so lost any impact.  The finale featured a song and any emotional impact the play might have was lost as we finished not contemplating the terrible events, caring about the characters but thinking we were watching the ending of a school play.

Apparently one inspiration for this piece is a collection of photographs of alzheimers sufferers.  It is fortunate that the program mentions this because there is absolutely nothing obvious within the piece that alludes to this.

Others in the bar expressed similar disappointment- the director was good, the subject matter was emotional, the cast was so talented and a joy to watch at times, the music was used perfectly, the minimal setting was perfect and the lighting was subtle and wonderfully understated.  The cast deserve a congratulaitons for their effort and work and if the ideas are carried through and developed then I look forward tos eeing more work from them.

However despite some truly amazing and astounding pieces, Physical Theatre Scotland has committed the ultimate theatrical sin- staging a piece that was so full of potential that it should have been phenomenal.   But missed the mark by so much that I wonder if the archer was blind.

It should have been amazing.  It should have been a piece that will stay with its audience forever.  A piece that, due to its subject matter is almost impossible to mess up.  Sadly PTS have accomplished the impossible.


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