The final pair of plays in the Bush’s RADAR festival, Mess and Where the White Stops both inhabit fantasy worlds of sorts. While the second of these is a fully blown Other Place, the setting of Mess is more of a physical representation of the fluctuating mental state of its protagonist, Josephine. Based on the experiences of writer Caroline Horton, who also plays Josephine, it tells the story of her struggle with anorexia. But, as the blurb says, don’t let that put you off!
Horton is accompanied on stage by Emily Goddard, as her kooky friend and closest confidante Boris, and Seiriol Davies, as unhinged musician Sistahl. Davies plays a dynamic live soundtrack from a synth set up in the corner of the stage, and interacts with the other two actors to provide a bizarre and often hilarious commentary on the events of the play.
We are introduced to Josephine’s story in a straightforward, explanatory manner, but the techniques used to take it forward jump around all over the place. A tall raised platform on the stage, covered in a thick white duvet and topped with a fancy umbrella, represents Josephine’s eating disorder. It is her happy place. The way Horton describes the feelings of calm and control produced by resisting food is evocative and relatable, even for those with no first-hand experience of anorexia. A scene in which she anxiously considers four tiny slices of apple is particularly compelling.
…elements of the play gradually converge into something that holds together well…
In between these “serious” bits, though, are frequent flashes of absurd comic brilliance, many of which are based around Davies’s array of facial expressions and unexpected utterances. The rapid jumps in tone are slightly jarring at first, but the elements of the play gradually converge into something that holds together well and speaks about a difficult issue in a way that is easy to understand. The final scene – in which Josephine must face up to the reality that our personal struggles never fully come to an end – brings this intelligent and inventive production to a close with just the right balance of hope and caution.
Antler Theatre are clearly a talented group with bags of good ideas for lively, watchable physical theatre, but their play Where The White Stops suffers from serious weaknesses in one crucial aspect: the story.
…she encounters various obstacles and challenges…
Crab (Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart) lives in an unspecified land, where her people are protected by a great tree. All around is the white, an apparently endless expanse of snow, into which villagers are forbidden to go. But Crab is driven by her desire to discover the unknown, and one day sets off into the white, leaving behind her friend Narwhale (Daniel Ainsworth). During the course of her adventure she encounters various obstacles and challenges, and meets a range of characters – some friendlier than others – who are played by Ainsworth and the other two performers, Nasi Voustas and Daniela Pasquini.
The harsh, dark and bitter nature of the white is realised superbly with the use of sparse lighting – particularly when the Beast, a legendary savage creature that stalks the white, appears on stage.
…has some nice moments of humour…
Slickly performed movement segments put across the vast scope of Crab’s travels, even on the small stage of the Bush. And the cast also contribute wordless harmonic vocals, which serve both to give shape to the culture of Crab’s world, and to convey the solitude of the environment the characters are in.
Unfortunately, the play is let down by a very weak narrative structure, which is hard to get engaged in and harder still to stay with. At points, the movement of the actors is so frenetic that it is next to impossible to know what is going on. The first 30 minutes or so has some nice moments of humour, but these seem to disappear entirely by the last third of the slightly laborious 75-minute running time.
…There is a huge amount of unrealised potential in this idea…
Ultimately the company, who devised the play collectively, seem to have focused too heavily on their visual and aural ideas, and not given due attention to what kind of work they were trying to create. If they intend this to be a fable, then the signposts need to be more obvious, the conclusion more satisfying. If it is less about the story than the emotional journey, then the characters need to be more rounded, less cartoony. There is a huge amount of unrealised potential in this idea.
The reason Mess works so well, ultimately, is because of the content of the play, which sustains the bold stylistic approach taken. Where The White Stops suffers for the same reason – for all its vibrancy, there is just not enough going on to maintain our interest.
Mess – 4 stars
Where the White Stops – 2 stars