UnderConstruction is a small Oxford and London theatre company specialising in promenade theatre – or “devised, site-based performance” as it modishly prefers to call it.
Stepping out from Radcliffe Square over the cobbles bent on “unravelling a mystery that still haunts its streets” as artistic director Lizzy McBain’s blurb puts it, and thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t wearing stilettos, we (2 Brits + 18 American school students) were gathered in by our first local character. No doubt the mumbling Sir Christopher Wren (Lee Woodward) would have given lucky stars short shrift, being himself into more into trigonometry, astronomy and the square root of pi, but he was good enough to have us peering through the railings at the raised sundial atop All Souls College while railing that the thing had been moved 100 years after his death without his permission.
We were happy to take on trust that “Oxford was and still is the original Wonderland, littered with eccentric and absorbing characters”, but alas the reality was not quite so exciting.
Old Wren, having got us off to a shaky start, passed us on to his sister Susan, a pharmacist and ‘she surgeon’, plying her trade in pills and potions from a rustic wheelbarrow on Magpie Lane. Any link other than that of consanguinity between siblings was obscure to me, though we got to inspect a few bottles and poultices.
Passing on to the first English fire balloonist James Sadler (Gavin Moore) perched on a wall in Dead Man’s Lane at the back of Merton College while he spoke up passionately as he waved a child’s glass ball above his head, we were still scratching our heads in search of the promised Wonderland and its mystery.
Next up, John Haldane (Jeremy Allen), a Professor Branestawm-type chemist in a green velvet frock coat. I’ll be generous and suppose he’d never quite recovered from locking himself in a sealed cabinet and breathing a lethal cocktail of poisonous gases in order to test their effects as he made little sense here in Christ Church Meadows, though his manner was engaging.
On to his daughter, writer Naomi Mitchison (Elsa Petit) hopping about Queen’s Lane like a pied wagtail in a brown print dress and Charlotte Bronte boots. She at least seemed to have read Alice, given that she mentioned the Cheshire cat, though by now our school students had become restless and were happily lured away by a cream tea in The Vaults Cafe.
Under Construction promises “work that engages the audience as an active participant” – alas, we saw little sign of any such thing, unless you count the odd semi-rhetorical question thrown in among the monologues. If you’re looking for a coherently-planned and realised piece of promenade theatre, then I suggest you look elsewhere. But if you fancy a trot round Oxford’s pretty lanes on a hopefully sunny afternoon, enjoying the novelty of bumping into a bunch of costumed, self-absorbed oddballs as you go, then this will be your thing.