[Review:] HOW TO SAVE A ROCK, The Vaults, London.
Unfortunately, I must start by saying that this is not a strong performance at all. It remains convoluted, chaotic and disorderly, sometimes involuntarily and sometimes through peculiar volition.
As the audience enter, they are playfully accosted by an accordionist, the ushers and three babbling scientists, one (Will Stevens) obsessed with his complex machines (two bicycles with one wheel suspended which, when ridden, supposedly powers the fluorescent lights around the stage); another (Stephanie Ocampo) intrusive, ecstatic to welcome us in and see us to our seats; and the last (Antonia Strafford-Taylor)… well, I’m not too sure what function this last scientist has. Whilst the first two performers caricaturise their scientists through clear profiles and idiosyncrasies, resulting in coherent and tailored interactions both with audience members and amongst themselves, Strattford-Taylor remains unparticularised and undefined. Her movements are unexaggerated and rather natural in comparison to the other performers, and this is definitely a problem. However, I must admit that this needed erraticism does certainly — if rather too gradually — get stronger as the play goes on and as the scientists reappear sporadically throughout. These three performers will be our three guides through the text, multi-roling as Coco (Strattford-Taylor) and her friends. As these characters, the actors are all rather good, but, as the play progresses, the problem becomes less about performer transformativity and believability and more about the strength of material itself.
To an extent, I feel somewhat unworthy to comment on the dramatic text and its soundness because of one particular issue persisting irksomely throughout the performance’s entirety: inaudibility. Pigfoot Theatre clearly did not consider carefully enough the nature of the space the play is staged in, with The Pit theatre being particularly echoic, and with no counteractions put in place for this. A mixture of issues with over-/projection of voice and lack of technical or architectural aid, volume becomes an issue inherent to this particular staging of this text. For the most part of the play, I could not understand a single thing due to the performers being completely inaudible, their words blending indistinguishably into one another, something commented upon by many other audience members too. So, perhaps I missed some vital informations that would have bettered my understanding of the play and that would have made it more favourable in my eyes, but I remain rather unconvinced.
The various materials presented, such as software hacking, environmentalism and advancements in science, are left so disparate and unmarried that only over-analysis could produce intelligent connections between them. I think that Pigfoot Theatre is aware of this, considering the scientists’ insistence upon concretising magical realism as fundamental in this play’s story and its telling. In my opinion, this magical realism can undoubtedly be equated here to but a lack of both creativity and the know-how to create a coherent, articulate and legible piece of theatre.
That is not to say that there is no poignancy to be found in this text whatsoever, however. There are certain, very intelligent discourses evoked by this play. One example of such is the notion of data and its seeming as though a viable sustainable, immaterial and infinite resource, where, indeed, there exist data centres that rely on very physical and material machines and sites to store data and process its production and sharing. This, the play exposes, remains just as — if not more — destructive of our environment than other non-digital means… But what does this have to do with saving a polar bear from…Scotland?
I imagine that the scientists’ faulty experiments, the breaching of their security systems and their reliance on magical realism, together with environmental/Anthropocenic concerns, is to suggest that science is unworthy to deal with the colossal and unwieldy environmental crisis in the midst of which we find ourselves today…but this is just a mere prediction from what I could gather from the text; the true aim/message/premise of this play remains utterly vague and unclear.
One fundamental characteristic of this play is audience participation, something I find to be appropriately consistent yet of little necessity. There is a certain degree of physical exertion required of the audience, from letter-writing to bike riding, to holding tarpaulin high above the head, and all is to little avail. When the audience first enter, they are asked to write down the one thing that they would save if the world was ending tomorrow, and at the end of the performance, the performers run around, asking what each audience member wrote… Why? I have no idea, but I imagine we are supposed to be conscious by that point of a certain conservationist concern that would inspire our choices, which we definitely are not. In fact, because we are told to write this item down at the very beginning of the performance, one finds that the majority of audience members have said things like "My son" or "My wife", which prolongs a certain human focus which I would imagine is not desired of this ending. We wait so long, left for the entire performance to ponder what this letter could be for, and all we do is tell it to the performer, and it is immediately forgotten. Such insignificant and, again, utterly unnecessary moments like this should be completely omitted.
Most moments of participation are, in themselves, escapist or rather humorous, yes, but have incredibly little bearing on the story. In fact, this is very typical of this performance which consistently presents us with quirks and oddities, such as the light-powering bicycle, musical numbers and puppetry, items which do not strengthen our understanding of anything and which, frankly, do not have very sufficient hedonistic value, either. In fact, I find the use of the bicycle to be particularly perplexing. Whilst I understand this to be Pigfoot Theatre’s conscious effort to produce a piece of theatre that is totally carbon neutral, I think the significance of this transcends the performance itself; in other words, this is something unreadable by and unimportant to the audience of this play, something evidently integral to the company’s dispositions and predilections but not of use or benefit to this performance.
I should note here, however, that these musical numbers (music by Sarah Spencer) that I mention above are very endearing and professionally composed, but nevertheless, they are rather stylistically questionable, especially considering the vast absence of songs for the first half of the performance. These songs are responsible for generating the greatest sense of endearment of the characters, and one of the few things that makes this play watchable is this. The use of the accordion I find, again, to be an issue. It serves such little purpose and only adds greater confusion where style is concerned, however charming and clever, when isolated, certain of its usages are, such as its use in what I shall call ‘the breathing scene’ where no notes are played, just the sound of air as the accordion is expanded and decreased. As for lighting, the simple rods lined with LED strips are definitely very pretty despite their simplicity, and they aid imagination well, particularly in that aforementioned scene involving the data centre. Again, I find the main fluorescent lighting to be less impressive and most subtractive from content and over-intellectualised.
In all, this is a most bemusing and disorderly performance. I must admit that until very late into the play, all I could observe from around the room were grimaces, scorns and expressions of utter confoundedness. It is rare to find such an audience where one can, without a single doubt, declare the response of the entirety of the audience. It was clear that I was not the only one bewildered or frustrated. Any palpable trajectories of this play are completely lost to its outlandish happenings, to its irresolute characters and erratic displays which all together remain incoherent and incohesive. There are deliberate ecological motives behind this so-called ‘climate-change musical comedy’, from the use of solar power and totally recycled/-able set to the promotion of environmentalist rallies at the close of the play, and yet any underlying message, beyond a simple “huge environmental issues exist”, remains completely undelivered. Whilst actors are energised throughout, the material itself is just simply lacklustre. Again, perhaps my mind would be radically altered if it were not for the sheer multitude of inaudible scenes, but something rather compels me to doubt so.