[Review:] LITTLE THINGS YOU LEARN, The Bread and Roses Theatre, London.
This performance is part of the Clapham Fringe. To book your tickets for any of the Fringe events, click here.
Unfortunately, my responses to this performance are almost entirely negative. This is a very confused and faltering dramatic text whose executions fall incredibly far from its aims.
The performance professes itself to be an exploration into attachment through the whimsical theme of childhood and child’s play. It simply is not. My methodology is to appreciate that a performance will speak for itself before I do any external reading to work out what the performance was supposed to achieve, and I can say emphatically that I would have been blissfully unaware, had I not read the play’s description afterwards, that this was an exploration into attachment as opposed to a confused demonstration of items, games and experiences oft-associated with a so-called ‘western’ childhood.
Exploring childhood will automatically remind an observer of attachments or lacks thereof. Games, clothing, phrases and TV shows from childhood do naturally produce a positive or negative response in the observer by mere association, and this response is certainly made possible by the material presented in this performance. However, one would expect an instrumentalisation of this response, a response that we could only loosely label as an ‘attachment’. We would expect further investigation into this response and others like it; that it would be explained, challenged explored. Instead, it is merely produced and forgotten as we move swiftly on to the next topic.
So, what is the purpose of presenting this material if not to use it as a critical lens through which to view attachment and explore it further? The focus of this dramatic text remains exclusively on childhood and children’s experiences to which we, a ‘western’ audience, can relate. And I would not refer to this as an exploration of childhood, either. It is but a fictionalised demonstration, a re-presentation aiming to depict, typify and reflect our childhoods back at us. We learn nothing, challenge nothing, analyse nothing, and, most of all, we explore nothing.
From very early on in this performance, it becomes obvious that the creatives are unclear as to the purpose and effects of the content they are presenting, cramming into the dramatic text anything loosely related to childhood that they can think of. And this drastically affects the performance’s style and mode. This performance cannot decide whether it is a play with a plot and overarching narrative, seeing a group of adults relive their memories growing up in a children’s home by entering through a nondescript — and quickly forgotten — magical portal; or a performance favouring a figurative re-presentation of childhood and the items, experiences and games we associate with it above fictional storytelling and a coherent narrative. Both, alone, are effective and viable in theory but cannot operate alongside one another without some sense of disparity and disjointedness. As a result of this, the creatives must decide whether this is a character-based play determined to absorb its audience into its fiction and invoke in them along their reflective journey a sense of nostalgia and delight, and perhaps a bittersweet mourning; or an actor-based performance that remains defictionalised and aims to present an analytical and explorative study complete with academic integrity. Again, you cannot have both.
In the description of their work, Runt of the Litter, the theatre company who created this performance, state incredibly vaguely — I imagine because they are not certain themselves — that they wish to explore 'attachment in its many forms’. I have to consider, then, which “forms” of attachment are we presented?
Only twice is the word ‘attachment’ actually used in this performance and both times by a seemingly random seamstress who appears to us via projected footage [more on projections later]. She explains what ‘attachment’ signifies to her in her line of work: the attachment of buttons and pieces to fabrics, feet and attachments to sewing machines, etc. This is the only distinctive variation of “attachment” with which we are presented, and it is completely and emphatically unrelated to any of the performance’s content.
This footage, which, frankly, should be removed, has nothing to do with the performance and in no way supports the performance’s investigation, only dampens and confuses it. We are not even told who this lady is or given any information to deduce her identity ourselves, and so the choice to include her in this performance is simply confounding. It is also clear that this was either completely unrehearsed or rehearsed very little, with the lady clearly addressing the camera impromptu. This is a piece of documentary theatre, which would perhaps benefit the performance if it was, in fact, an extensive explorative study, but, as we have already established several times, it is not. So, now we have a character-based, fictional play with no coherent narrative dealing with re-presentations and ‘real’ recorded interviews. Utterly confounding. The creatives clearly have not thought through what effect this would have on the overall voice of the dramatic text.
Later, though, we see her again, and she finally defines — but, again, vaguely — the attachment we would expect from this text. But this definition is something we would expect to receive early on in the performance, to frame our critical thinking, not right towards the end.
Moving on, we have the issue of the monologues. Reminding ourselves that attachment is the focus of investigation here, we are presented a monologue dealing with recurring dreams and another with being true to your authentic self…on topic, then! I must admit that the other two monologues are slightly more pertinent, though, with emphasis on Sadie’s (Hannah Magee) in which she speaks of a specific painting that enchanted and gave her comfort as a child. Her lack of parental figures and guidance also play into the theme, somewhat. However, again, this remains unfocused and starts to deal with Sadie’s sense of abandonment and lack of belonging, not attachment. And whilst Warren (Jay Pooley) speaks of his relationship and bond with his sister, the focus is turned to his guilt for not being a better brother, his sense of selfishness, and his own lack of belonging. So, these two monologues, the only two silver linings to bring us back to our focus on attachment…take us somewhere else.
This is a shame because these four monologues could be used so much more effectively; they could refocus the material, elucidating the action we have seen thus far and framing the information to come, so that we might learn something, experience something, explore something with an overarching sense that the material we are experiencing is cogent, cohesive and coherent. They could be used to highlight explicitly how attachment is present in all of the examples the material provides and to show how significant attachment is and its many forms — exactly what the performance aims to do. To rely on ‘traditional’ understandings of plot and character in Sadie and Warren’s monologues is just too subtractive.
Whilst I do not believe the subject matter of Frankie’s (Abbie Aldridge) monologue is pertinent to or useful for this text in any way, I would recommend that the creatives re-study its style of address, how its writer succeeds in communicating their message through a first-person voice but without further fictionalising the content through any references to how Frankie’s tale relates back to the overall plot. The manner in which the audience is addressed and in which the figure [not character] of Frankie references herself should be a notable area of study for Runt of the Litter. But again: rethink the material! This is by far the most convoluted and faltering monologue of the four; its message takes far too long to communicate and is done so weakly and ramblingly.
Overall, in terms of writing and form, I find the monologues lend to a rather predictable and monotonous structure: unrestrained and lively activity, then a soliloquy, then activity, then…and so on. As I have written above, they also fictionalise the text too heavily, with needless and ineffective references to the infamous Carol’s children’s home and the relationships between the characters, references that do not progress the narrative or further our understanding of the character and plot.
Now that I have established the instability and ineptitude of the dramatic text, its areas of ‘study’ and its ‘messages’, I shall now move on to the capabilities of the performers themselves. I shall start with some positives! By far the most natural performer is Eleanor Kumar (playing Jaz) who is clear on her character intents and actions and certainly has good stage presence. When energy and vitality are required from the performers, they certainly do not disappoint. Despite the first song sequence being far too drawn-out, scenes depicting fast and energised play are handed well, also.
Now, the negatives… One notices rather quickly as a regular theatregoer that stage presence is, of course, defined by the articulacy, expressivity and stature of a performer’s body but that perhaps the most important factor, second to facial expression, is how the hands are held and utilised. Manual expression is incredibly important and a huge part of everyday non-verbal communication. Yet, all of these cast members struggle repeatedly with what to do with their hands –– except Aldridge, in fact; she struggles throughout the entire performance. They usually end up located by the thighs, stiff and still. This is most distracting and unnatural and must be examined.
The next biggest issue I have with performativity has to do with the performers’ collective interactions. There are quite a few sequences that require uniformity amongst the performers. For example, when the characters first enter through the portal and perform their secret handshake; or during what I shall call the ‘morning routine’, wherein the performers repeat stylised lateral movements in canon, moving across the stage, miming brushing their teeth, yawning, stretching, etc. I shall say rather bluntly that these are incredibly simple routines but that they are, shockingly, executed terribly. There is a complete lack of synchronisation and physicality which renders movements, particularly in the latter scene, completely illegible and lacklustre. I shall refrain from elaborating, but I should note here, too, that this morning routine is also completely needless and makes for a huge and notable regression in momentum.
Expressivity is habitually adequate in this performance, but naturalism is certainly fleeting when it is required of the performers. And a lack of psychological realism when intended is demonstrated through the creatives’ failure to conceive coherent characters and plot when developing a performance that clearly strives to offer these.
Moving on to tech. I understand that a technician was sourced last-minute, and so I will not criticise her too harshly for her tech operation, but I must still note that it was highly inadequate. But she was notably unaided by the equally fallible design of technical elements. A sign of an inexperienced theatremaker is an over-reliance upon lighting and a tendency to misuse it by having a different lighting state for every single scene and sequence. This was the case for this performance, and so it is no wonder why Melanie struggled to follow the enormous cue list this would inevitably have presented her with.
Projections. Shambolic. Completely failing to supplement the dramatic text in any useful or progressive way, the projector, clearly uncalibrated, provides us with images that are ridiculously small and is impossible, it seems, for the technician to turn on and off remotely, for actors have to scramble to cover the light source with a flimsy piece of card that often falls straight back off. Slides have been set to an automatic timer, it seems, which means that the footage finishes before the performers have succeeded in scrambling to block the light, and that we now get a lovely view of the desktop display of a MacBook once the application has prematurely closed itself. On the night I saw the performance, Magee struggled so much to cover the light, unable to reach it, that she called Kumar back on stage to her rescue — and she also struggled! An utterly ridiculous and terribly disorganised display that slows any momentum we had left and completely annihilates the credibility and integrity of the actors as agents in control of their own performance. I cannot stress enough: get rid of the projections!
Why project an image of the painting Sadie was so fond of? If it is so important to include — which, in my view, it is certainly not — why not print the picture out and stick it in a frame, have her find it amongst the rest of the memory-filled toot around the house? Perhaps this is due to Runt of the Litter’s focus on sustainability and, in particular, found/recycled props, but it is strange to me that their ethos is not reflected in their technical choices and the impact on the environment and resources that using so many lighting states has… The lack of simple creative solutions in lieu of ‘fancy’ tech that pushes the creatives far out of their depths is just irksome to me.
My last note on projections is quite an urgent one: there is a potential huge copyright issue that I cannot better emphasise. I imagine that the creatives have not acquired the appropriate licenses to exhibit the copyrighted songs and footage that they do, especially considering how many are from Disney and how expensive this would be. The potential legal consequences of this just are not worth it. Again: get rid of the projections!