Alchymy 2018: Day Two Review

Critic-in-residence Fergus Morgan takes on day two of Alchymy 2018:

Alchymy 2018 saved the best for last on Saturday. Lewis Doherty – a familiar face over the weekend – closed the festival’s second day with WOLF, his whirlwind one-man show combining physicality, mime, and some seriously impressive accents. Over a brisk 45 minutes, with the help of some astute lighting and Chazz Redhead’s detailed sound design, Doherty leads us on a wild goose chase through the chaotic, crime-ridden Shadow City.

He’s Patrick Wolf, a detective who doesn’t play by the rules, but he’s also everyone else – a Mexican club owner, a snarling police chief, a crowing Italian restauranteur, a whirring robot ninja, a yodelling, pick-up straddling hillbilly – in this noir thriller that shifts from chase scene to fight scene to chase scene to fight scene with fluid, fast-moving fizz. WOLF wears its influences on its sleeve, but it wears them hilariously well: Blade RunnerSin CityBack to the Future, and in one hilariously bar-room brawl, Shaun of the Dead.

Doherty is a chameleonic performer, shifting postures and pronunciations at the drop of a hat, with an uncanny ability to create cinematic landscapes with just his bare hands. Let’s hope we get another chance to explore Shadow City in Edinburgh this summer. It’s the sort of show that can do tremendously well there, an inventively crafted comic-book caper that provided much-needed light relief at Alchymy, after another packed schedule of discussion, and performance.

After a networking event, which I steered well clear of, my Saturday kicked off with a rehearsed reading of Marika McKennell’s E8. Developed as part of the North Wall’s Catalyst residency last year and soon to be receiving a full production, E8 is four-hander set in a struggling state school’s pupil referral unit in Hackney. Authentically written and timely, it’s a moving exploration of how the state, and particularly the education system is failing vulnerable teenagers in north-east London, leaving the door open for drugs and violent crime.

Hal Coase’s I Promise Tomorrow I’ll Forget Where I Buried It came next. Directed with verve by Tilly Fletcher and performed with impressive versatility by Phoebe Hames, who has something a bit Emma Thompson about her, it enigmatically presents an identity parade of characters, each of whom is in some way worried about the future. A CEO frets asserts her company’s prospects in the boardroom. A woman sees her own dreams used in a widescale advertising campaign. A celebrity feels manipulated by those around him.

Each chunk is crafted with compelling slickness, words tumbling after one another at lightning speed, but Coase keeps the audience at arm’s length throughout. An explanation as to who these people are, how they’re connected, and why we should care about them is never forthcoming, and the play suffers as a result. It’s not enough to just point at a horrifying, Black Mirror future and scream.

That’s an accusation that could also be levelled at Rehearsing For Planet B, Forward Arena’s new piece set during the impending climate crisis, which was Saturday’sheadline show in the North Wall’s main space. Co-created by Thomas Bailey and Emma D’Arcy, it’s an intriguing first pass at a project with bags of potential, staged with real visual flair but leaving its audience stranded in the dark throughout.

We’re in North Watford Sleep Club, a bare basement beneath a crumbling world, where four strangers – The Hermit, The Protagonist, The Writer and Technofixer – are trying to wean themselves off Cola, the sleep-inducing drug that keeps the population in a happy, forgetful fug. They want to stay awake, to induce visions, to remember the world before it collapsed into chaos, the recall what a tree looked like, and what the air smelled like. Maybe then they can get to Planet B, an alternative Earth for those who didn’t fuck up the first one.

So far, so typically dystopian. Beyond these basic plot-points, though, Rehearsing For Planet B disappears down a black hole. Is it a meditation on our collective inertia in the face of catastrophic global events? Or maybe simply a call for concerted action to prevent the continued degradation of the natural world? Or maybe, like Coase’s I Promise Tomorrow I’ll Forget Where I Buried It, it’s just pointing at the future and screaming.

It’s coolly staged – there are some exquisite blackouts, where all that’s visible are a series of scrolling digital displays – but it needs a lot more drama and a lot more substance if its going to seem like anything more than hand-wringing. A lot less impenetrable, inexplicable dialogue, and a lot more care for its audience. For all the talk of improving accessibility and diversifying audiences at Alchymy, this headline show feels distinctly alienating, even elitist, as it is.

What the future will look like was also discussed during the day’s biggest panel. A range of professionals, including producer Jo Crowley, literary agent Imogen Sarre, director Max Gill, and Clapham Omnibus artistic director Marie McCarthy, shared their thoughts on the hottest trends in playwriting today, and what the plays of tomorrow will be. There was probably too many voices to spark much stimulating debate, but insights abounded nonetheless: political plays will become increasingly common in response to an increasingly troubling political agenda, drama tackling the influence of technology over our lives will start to find its feet, and overlooked, minority voices will begin to own the stage’s they deserve.

“In a world where cinema and TV are so dominant and so high-quality and so readily available, what can theatre offer that nothing else can?” asked Gill. “What magic can theatre supply that can’t be got anywhere else?”

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