Jumble It Up

In each round see five short pieces; two of which return expanded and enhanced 6 months later. Discuss your impressions with performers and audience - your feedback helps the show evolve to the next stage!
Burton Taylor Theatre, Jan, June and December 2007

December 6, 2007
Jumble It Up: Best of Before
Wednesday 5th December 2007

To be honest, I would have been looking forward to this had they chosen any two of the five performers who came in July. It’s a rare privilege to be able to watch a work develop and grow, and to feel that you’ve had some input into the way it’s been considered. It’s also good as a reviewer to feel that you’re not writing anything the performers haven’t heard already at the feedback sessions after the show!

With a more powerfully physical performance, Joanna Brown’s We Will Mend On The Highways had gained a little of the focus it needed this time around, but seemed to have done so at the expense of its connection with the audience.

Her awestruck, breathless stage persona seemed to have been replaced by a naturalism that gave the whole thing the feeling of a rather flat lecture. It was a shame to hear her warm, poetic script being delivered in this way when with a little more consideration of that dramatic persona the show would have pulled us into its world much more forcefully. It’s still a brave piece, though, and I look forward to seeing it again in London in the near future.

Having been scrupulously even handed in my opening paragraph, I’m forced to admit that I would have been surprised and disappointed had we not seen the return of 10 Ways to Die Onstage. A hit last time, there have been few major changes. However, with a show that takes audience and performer this close to the edge of what’s emotionally bearable, it’s hard to know where else it could have gone.

Edward Rapley, under the direction of Steve Ryan, uses his extra time well. It’s now a good few minutes before the amiable, absurdist comedy of the opening plummets into darker places, giving us time to get used to Rapley’s hesitant speech rhythms and uncomfortable half smiles before he really starts using them in anger.

It’s a little more explicit this time round – not sexually, but rather around what the objects on stage represent, and how he uses them. This has defused the show a little by giving it a somewhat didactic feel – a jarring sense of being told ‘important truths’ that instantly raises the contrarian hackles.

That aside, it was still unique, still exquisitely disturbing and still deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

July 1, 2007
Jumble It Up: First Dates
Friday 29th June 2007

It’s an exciting idea in itself: five snippets of theatre that are, by their own admission, not quite formed, are presented on stage. Afterwards the performers submit themselves to audience feedback, hoping to develop their ideas into full-blown shows for performance the following year. I’m pretty well-disposed to bravery at that level already, so the fact that the shows ranged from merely intriguing to absolutely compelling was an added bonus.

Most difficult of the five to get along with was Bill Aichison’s mock-conspiracy polemic 27 Words. Taking a pot-shot at the sort of magical thinking that gives rise to both conspiracy theories and ill-conceived invasions of Middle Eastern countries, this was essentially a monologue – the actor’s interaction with his own recorded voice not quite sufficient to give it the dramatic impact it needed.

Noisiest was Demonstrate’s absurdist vignette The Primitive Streak. Composer Anton Maiof providing the soundtrack live on stage was one of the more striking ideas on display in a well-acted piece that had some interesting (if not always subtle) things to say about what – and perhaps who – we sacrifice in exchange for a well-ordered life.

Joanna Brown’s We Will Mend on the Highways was touching but unfocused. It was full of affecting moments – a faintly ridiculous tribute to the victims of an obscure shipping disaster being one of them – but without something to unify them, it risked losing audience interest.

In Oh my Green Soapbox Lucy Foster risked including video, thus requiring the theatre’s computer equipment to work properly. Inevitably it didn’t, but she recovered well. Her bewildered but enthusiastic everywoman persona was the perfect choice to deliver a piece on climate change that wasn’t in the least preachy but still made its point.

However, it was the Licensees’ 10 Ways to Die on Stage which proved the highlight of the show. This unsettling piece of self-dissection was proof positive that a jug of salt water and a well-inflated balloon can be as challenging as an amount of full frontal nudity.

It’s a tribute to the performers that the greatest criticism I have of the evening was the choice of venue for the ‘Feedback Café’ after the show. Copa on a Friday night was not the easiest place to discus the subtleties of modern performance art, and while the process was well-run it was still difficult to be heard above the music and the crowd.

June 26, 2007
Jumble It Up: Best Of Before
Monday 25th June 2007

Jumble It Up is not a theatre company or a play, it's more like an instant festival. It exists to help the performers of experimental and arts theatre to develop their shows, and follows several stages of their development. So this evening's performance was part two of the last round - where two performances come back, bigger and better. On Friday is part one of the next round - where 5 new short shows air, probably for the first time. After each session performers and audience leave the cosy Burton Taylor and repair to the pub, to discuss the shows at the Feedback Cafe. I'd assumed all this analysis and discussion was for the good of the performers, but it definitely works both ways!

Rhiannon Armstrong's show is set in Ballooningham, where balloons have ceased to communicate effectively, and wear emoticon faces. We hung on to our balloon buddies, introducing them to each other as members of the audience acted out tableaux. It was charming where it could have been cringe-making, mostly because of Rhiannon's natural and friendly persona and the letters: she has been compiling the International Archive of Things Left Unsaid, real things real people have wanted to say and didn't, and some of these were read out as part of the show. They lent different voices to the performance and contrasted with the Celebrity Balloon Bake-off behind the cardboard high-rise blocks of Ballooningham. The show is arranged into 3 days and nights, with different pacing for different times. The whole piece fitted together into a unified whole, despite differing and sometimes unexplained elements: 43 candles in honour of different memorials, Greener Grass and breadmaking. At the end we were told to pop our balloon buddies, which spread outrage and alarm amongst the audience!

After a champagne-flowing interval we settled into a somewhat different set filled with tiny props - animals perhaps from a Noah's ark and miniatures on the wall. The performers, two fifths of Propeller, handed out binoculars with which we were invited to survey the scene. The show was made up of interwoven stories, told by the compelling Pete Harrison - stories of the Antarctic and a London garden, of a long-married couple, endings, beginnings and a landscape made of ice, trees and the past. Tim Vize-Harrison, performer and gardener, with an antique projector and an Apple Mac state-of-the-art laptop displayed images and words from long ago, and Great Tales were told through tiny details. An unresolved ending sent us out into the night.

Afterwards performers and audience met in the Feedback Cafe. Jumble take pains to stress this is not a Good / Bad sort of feedback - it's much more about personal impressions, checking the gap between the performers' thoughts and the audience's reactions. It is absolutely fascinating to discuss impressions of a play with other audience members, let alone the writers-performers. With Rhiannon we talked about the balloonicide, and whether it's important the letters are concrete props not just stories, what the candles represented, and how the show had changed since its first airing.  With Propeller we talked about the binoculars and the cine film, and the abrupt ending. The performers seemed remarkably happy to put themselves through the feedback process! Though Rhiannon, being a one-man show, had a facilitator to take down what was said with a calm and rational state of mind.

I'm sure experimental theatre is not everyone's cup of tea, but I'm also sure many people dismiss it without really knowing what it is. If you like rough and ready performances, never knowing what to expect and interacting with what you see, if you find satisfaction in the creative process as well as the polished product, if you'd like to change the course of a performance, then go along and see! You might not get out of it what you expect, but it's a very satisfying way to see a show.
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