The title of this astonishingly brilliant piece of theatrical experimentation is a song by Arthur Russell. Have you heard of him? I hadn’t until tonight. (Some of the other audience members I spoke to were even more clueless: they thought it was Walking On The Moon by The Police.) But Arthur Russell, who was making music from the mid-70s to the late-80s, was influential, avant-garde and fearless. Stylus magazine describes him as ‘a genius—never to be recognized in his own time, but to be enjoyed by generations to come.’ Here’s a link to the song itself:
According to one reviewer, "In Russell’s music, I hear the moments when we become acquainted with ourselves and our thoughts. It’s the music of our jumbled, confused insides, whether we know it exists or not."
That is a perfect description of this play.
It’s actually seven plays, each of them primarily a monologue, each written by a different student playwright, and each performed by a different actor. But the plays have been mingled together, as if in a witch’s cauldron of character-based creativity. And the resulting concoction is somehow greater than its parts. The ideas, the sounds, the emotions, seem to be thrown from one character to another, flying not just from person to person, but from story to story, as if connected by an idea. But that connecting idea has only been created by the very juxtaposition of the plays. In other words, director Max Morgan and his team have set out to do something different, and see where it takes them. The destination is unknown, the ultimate meaning of the experience is obscure. But the journey itself, witnessing the experiment, is a thrilling revelation. Arthur Russell would have been delighted at the music of these jumbled, confused insides.
The individual strands that make up This Is How We Walk On The Moon are:
Hairdresser Dave by Lily Sheldon: the story of a hairdresser whose obsession with one of his celebrity clients leads him to desperate acts.
Jodie by Leah Aspden: an escape-room fanatic buries her broken emotions in a series of quiz challenges.
Jealous Bitch by Coco Cottam: a woman sees the woman she loves assaulted by a man at a nightclub. How real is her perception?
Ammonite by Max Morgan: an obsessive fossil-hunter is excluded by society but starts to sense the first twitchings of human affection.
KFC Lover by Shaw Worth: I’m honestly not 100% sure what was happening in this one, but my god it was beautiful. It veered into some very disturbing things that happen behind the scenes at your local KFC.
Midnight Pirate: a woman who had a traumatic sea-based experience as a child becomes unable to tell the difference between real life and her fantasy existence as a pirate queen.
Eli by Eulalia Marie: a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of confession in rhyme to a departed lover.
The connecting theme is obsessive love, and the strange places to which it can take you. But the thrill of this show is not in the theme: it’s in the performance. Conventional staging has been turned on its head. The audience stand, corralled together in the middle of the room, while the actors perch on tiny stools amongst them. Individual audience members are occasionally pressed into action as clients in Dave’s hair salon or as the Midnight Pirate’s boyfriend. Even the actors periodically dip into each other’s narratives (and when that happens you have to be – literally – on your toes to stay up to speed with which story you’re currently in). The performances are urgent, painful and passionate, and the show has the guts to choose obscurity over boring old exposition.
With a critical eye, I would have to say that keeping the audience in a state of suspended understanding is a fine art, and judging how to drip-feed morsels of explication is a question of timing, teasing and occasional treating. At the start of any show a production has a free gift of about fifteen minutes when they can be as bizarre and confusing as they like, and the audience will go along with it in the expectation that all will ultimately be revealed. After that, a sense of structure should ideally click into gear so that, even if the narrative continues to be challenging, there is a sense of things starting to coalesce, and ultimately events can be brought to a satisfying close. I felt that This Is How We Walk On The Moon hit a plateau of semi-explicability about half-way through, and then stayed at the same level until the climactic last five minutes. Finding a way to up the ante throughout would make it even better.
Having said that, I’m sure Arthur Russell would disagree with me entirely. He would have adored this play’s belief in itself, and its refusal to lick the dust. He would have been in awe of the talent, creativity and bravery on display. And you know what? I think he’s probably right. Arthur, rest in peace.