I shall start with this performance's most impressive feature: its aesthetic. The set for this performance (designed by Miriam Nabarro, constructed by Mercury Theatre Colchester) is incredible in its multifunctionality and malleability. It allows for a distinguished and refined visual for each and every one of the performance's various locations. Though simple in its foundations, the barrenness and inelaborateness of the sterile setting of this play are successfully communicated through this set's winding maze of metal.
This is not to say that this set design is perfectly incorporated into the performance throughout, however. I think specifically to the use of the trapdoor at the end of the play. Somehow, though Subhi (Yaamin Chowdhury) has never set foot on the roof, he has a stash awaiting him there under its tiling. I would also note that having Subhi draw around the stage floor and walls with chalk, observed by a group of awe-inspired onlookers, though I understand the symbolism of this, is rather hammy and consistent with the fact that his drawings actually become irksome to his family and have very little to do with the characters’ salvation and the final resolution of the play. These are achieved principally by Jimmie’s (Mary Roubos) appearance and the love between her and him.
Insofar as the video graphics (designed by Daniel Denton) and imagery projected onto the back wall of the stage, these are most congruous with the themes and symbols presented to us by the text. Some are perhaps too detailed, and other times too cartoony, the overall aesthetic is certainly maintained through these dynamic visuals.
Lighting (designed by Ben Cowens) has its highs and its lows in this performance. For the majority of this play's duration, it is consistently facilitative, well dispersed and well designed, but in highlighting specific areas, it is most inadequate. I think primarily to the spotlights that fail to light The Shakespeare Duck (puppeteered by Jummy Faruq, directed by Alison Duddle) appropriately, unsynchronised with its appearances and exits. I do understand, however, that Faruq may be to blame for failing to remember her exact mark upon entering the stage.
Sticking with puppetry (puppets made by Duddle and Marc Parrett), Faruq's animation is chiefly underwhelming. Whilst vocal characterisations are well executed, The Shakespeare Duck remains far too inert and hence lifeless. Only being able to rotate its head, it is important that more extreme and exaggerative movements are made with the bulk of its entire body. Also, when holding this puppet in her arms, Faruq’s hand is visible through the opening between its neck and chest. I would recommend a yellow glove be worn here to conceal the hand entirely — failing this, a black glove. Seeing her bare hand throughout is far too destructive of illusion. In her own characterisations, however, Faruq is a credible, expressive and competent supernumerary, developing and taking well to her various roles.
As for Jimmie's ancestors, these puppet costumes are very well designed, if perhaps a little uncanny and eerie-looking where they ought not to be. However, choreography in their scenes is simply awful. Action is incredibly limited, and the impressive design and mere presence of the puppets themselves seem to be relied upon over the puppeteer’s corporeal expressivity.
Such moments of intense or surreal action are regularly downplayed in this way, in fact. I think also to the protest and fight scenes here. The final uprising, seeing the actors running aimlessly from side to side, jumping up onto the ‘prison walls’ and back down again, is simply bizarre. Far too chaotic and, more importantly, far too purposeless. All action must be executed with a contextualised and comprehensible aim. Running in circles alone does not communicate an impressive and coherent busyness. The same can be said for fighting scenes (directed by Kenan Ali), as these also lack credibility. I would recommend that further attention be given to movements that distract the audience's eye, as opposed to these mimed hits and impacts, to have the audience fill in the blanks for themselves.
And this brings me on to acting. There is a notable range of talent and abilities across this cast, seeing acting styles range from naturalistic to caricatural to simply unclassifiable. Standing out as having the most developed profiles are Mackenzie Scott (playing Beaver), Roubos, Devesh Kishore (playing Harvey), and Elmi Rashid Elmi (playing Eli). Whilst Scott notably forgets which leg to limp on towards the end of the performance, soon remembering and correcting this, and whilst his character verges on caricature, Scott portrays Beaver with the utmost integrity, certain of his character’s intentions and motivations, performing clear and invigorated movements and with refined characteristics. His Australian accent is also the most accurate and thus the most believable by far. With a slightly more faltering accent, Roubos is the most expressive and vitalised of the actors, presenting a clear and well-established profile. Though intonation and vocal delivery are sometimes inappropriate, Kishore remains perhaps the most convincing of the cast, though vast improvements could still be made, and certainly presents the most earthly character. He also distinguishes his characters very effectively. A most transformative actor. Elmi has wonderful diction and stage presence, confident in and sure of his role, despite his sometimes overly caricatural quirks that I can safely attribute to direction. Beyond these, all other actors are adequate performers, if extremely caricatural and histrionic in places. This excludes Siobhan Athwal, however, upon whose performance I shall elaborate below. Chowdhury’s caricatural acting style persists throughout the entire play, and whilst his characterisation is fair, he eventually contrasts far too greatly against actors like Elmi for this reason.
The overall accuracy of accents (voice coaching by Yvonne Morley) is, frankly, abominable across this cast. I was actually surprised to learn that the cast had been coached at all. All actors also perform with an overly artificial and unnatural speech type, coinciding with a general tendency to perform the sentiments and symbolisms underlying lines and movements, as opposed to having characterisations and deliveries be led by character psychology and the significance of the contexts in which characters find themselves. A fine example of this is in all aspects of Athwal’s portrayal of Queenie. Athwal’s performance, especially in the former part of the performance, is a demonstration of what was once termed exploitative acting, meaning that the actor performs not believably or authentically but merely to feel a connection of sorts with the audience, glaring out into the house and into the potential eyes of audience members, infusing their role with clichéd ‘theatricalities’ and oversentimental expressivity that dampen the credibility of the role and merely exploit the audience-performer relationship [hence ‘exploitative’]. In fact, Athwal is by far the weakest performer, unsaved by her terrible diction and failed attempts at an appropriate idiolect.
However, I do recognise that this very inauthentic acting style, which adds a gross artificiality, especially in scenes where all other actors are performing only to each other, ignoring the existence of the audience altogether, may actually be a directorial issue, as Kiran L Dadlani (playing Maa) performs the more sentimental and ‘dramatic’ lines of her final monologue to the audience, too, whilst directing the rest to the actors with whom she shares the stage. This is an awful decision. Audiences cannot emotionally connect with such metatheatricality as strongly as they certainly would in observing the characters enclosed in their own world, regarding them as true sentient and passible individuals, as opposed to actors faking a character. Thinking that this direct audience address will stir something in the hearts of the audience denotes naïveté and inexperience.
In terms of the story, I must admit that I am not familiar with the book by Zana Fraillon upon which this play is based (adaptation by S Shakthidharan), and so I cannot comment on its accuracy or decisions to omit or expand upon its components. However, I will comment on the plot and narrative presented in the play itself. Once Jimmie is introduced into this story, plot developments see an increase in momentum, and a sense of direction and urgency rears itself for our characters. Before this, however, the theme of stories and storytelling is rather exhausted very early on in the play, with Subhi asking every single character with which he comes into contact to recount one to him. As alluded to in the first paragraph of this review, though the stories have very significant emotional relevance for Subhi and successfully pretext the imagined wonders of the outside world and communicate to us his keen observational skills and poetic reasoning, they have very little significance in terms of the overall plot, and this is a great shame.
Referring back to the character of The Shakespeare Duck, I understand that this figure is supposedly used as a guide to deepen our understanding of Subhi and his story [although, again, I have not read the book, and this may be an exaggeration of its integrity]. However, in this play, he is merely a quirky passing feature. He certainly encourages or discourages Subhi occasionally when new developments crop up; otherwise; he is a mere endearing, clown-like embellishment. Because of how extremely distinguished this imagined entity is from the rest of the characters, having such a minor and actually rather negligible significance, he, too, stands out far too distinctly against the other characters and the reality of the play. He is underused, his significance underplayed, able to be reduced to the mere description, ‘lonely Subhi’s imaginary friend’ and nothing more.
However, whilst this theme of stories and personified rubber duck themselves are weakly incorporated, they do fall in line with the play’s mystic, superhuman or superstitious qualities, which are maintained throughout its entirety: the bone sparrow itself, the religious beliefs of the characters, the characters’ unending hope and faith, puppet costumes representative of Jimmie’s immediate ancestors. As regards family, though, the small familial structure we are presented for Subhi is rather unoriginal and overly stereotypical — the older, aggressive and wise sister; the distant, troubled but learned mother. Better representation ought to be conceived. However, I can recognise this as an issue relative to this original text. The text could also benefit from incorporating more factual details into its narrative. Currently, it feels like a mere dystopian play with no historical grounding or significance. We learn nothing of the Rohingya crisis, upon which this story is based, and this is a huge downfall, becoming almost insensitive in its lack of profound reference and its hyper-fictionalisation.