Inspired by a Chehkov play about a group of travellers at an inn on a wild stormy night, On the High Road is part dance, part live music performance in three acts, presented to us by an ensemble of nine dancers and three singers.
Each singer serenades their own act, they share lyrics and tunes but their styles of singing are diverse. In the beginning soprano Melanie Pappenheim sings through the dreams and nightmares of the travellers; they can’t seem to stay awake – drunk, drugged, or unable to face the horror of waking up until a knock on the door brings in three outsiders.
Cabaret singer George Heyworth’s arrival gets the party going but soon fighting starts and he flees the barroom brawl, only brought to a halt by the imposing Thomas McCarthy entering like a Russian peasant scattering the rats in a barn. He then soothes the frenzy with ballads from the Irish traveller tradition, a style handed down through generations of his family.
The startling all-white set is a tiny performance space rising steeply through a series of steps, over and on which the dancers (all in black) scurry, balance and tussle like frantic chess pieces all trapped on one white square. In this performance the Playhouse is exposed to the rafters with all its mechanic and electrical elements on show, adding to the sense of unease.
The lighting by Hansjörg Schmidt is stunning, as much choreographed to the music as the performers. At times pin sharp shadows create a second company of dancers, at others huge monsters, blurred at the edges, are thrown up onto the walls. It has echoes of Harry Lime stalking the streets of Vienna in The Third Man or Hitchcock’s cinematography in Vertigo. The original score created by Paul Clark from samples of rain and wind, dripping taps, rushing rivers is a whirling soundscape over which the three singers’ voices rise. Suzy Willson, Clod’s co-artistic director with Clark, and choreographer wanted to explore how we/they move and interact when trapped in small spaces, citing inspiration from Chekhov, Goya’s etchings The Disasters of War and Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others.
Though beautiful to listen to and mesmerising to watch, sometimes the show gets overly complicated and too busy. Perhaps a breathing space and a little more lyricism in the movement to complement the singing would give greater contrast to the tension and suppressed energy of the dance. At times it feels like a story is being imposed on the audience when we are happy to create our own out of the elements presented to us, trapped inside behind our flimsy defences with limited resources, fearful of whatever is on the other side of the door.
Clod plays for one more night at The Playhouse which is its final night of the tour. There is an afternoon workshop today with singer Thomas McCarthy.