Last night I enjoyed an extraordinary double bill of new plays at the Bunker Theatre. Such a privilege to be able to see them as a reviewer. Reminds me how lucky I am to write about fringe theatre and that I get invited to experience beautiful and inventive pieces of new writing. Before I get into the nitty gritty of the reviews, I will say that anyone with a passion for new writing should be rushing to the Bunker to see these shows before they close on 23rd November. Just go. Stop reading. Book. Go. Here’s a link to their website https://www.bunkertheatre.com/whats-on What are you waiting for?
For those who are still with me, the first show of the evening is Ava Wong Davies’ lyrical and moving ‘i will still be whole (when you rip me in half)’. This is an exquisitely written piece that was first performed as part of the Vault Festival earlier this year. The emotional journey I was taken on, across the 60 minutes of the show, is quite extraordinary. While Ava Wong Davies’ writing is highly poetic and beautiful, it is brought to life with a wonderfully grounding realism. These two women feel so rounded and real, yet also impossible to pin down. I adored this piece.
Helen Morley’s direction is faultless. She gives this play the space and sensitivity it needs to fully come to life. There are no unnecessary distractions, and nothing is rushed. This is a show where the silences speak volumes, as if it is in the spaces between the words that the meaning lives. There are also some wonderfully evocative but subtle choreographed elements within the piece that serve to underscore the emotions of our two protagonists.
Joy is a mother who walked out of her home when her daughter was a baby, never to return. EJ is the daughter, now grown and looking for connection (this is not a show about answers). Tuyen Do gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Joy, who seems so pragmatic about her life choices. You get a sense of a woman who reveals very little about internal life, who seems calm and ordinary, only showing the occasional glimpses of just how complex and passionate she really is. Aoife Hinds fully embodies EJ, a young woman with her own issues connecting with the world around her. She has fears of being the source of various unrelated forms of destruction and devastation, from fires to mould, that inhabit the world around her. As their two stories are shared and intertwine, you realise that despite not knowing each other, the pervasive sense of experiencing life from the outside defines both women.
Grace Venning’s deceptively simple set design both mirrors and amplifies the more meditative aspects of the play.
‘i will still be whole..’ is a beautifully written, impeccably directed and performed, emotionally resonant and intriguing character piece. Did I mentioned that I adored it?
This was followed by the premiere of Eleanor Tindall’s debut play ‘Before I was a Bear’. Another triumph of inventive and intriguing new writing, but with a very different energy to ‘i will still be whole…’ making for an enjoyable and dynamic double bill.
This solo show is performed with wonderful verve by Jacoba Williams as Cally, our hero of the piece. She is an exciting and talented young actor, who fully commits to bring Cally to vibrant life. Her eyes sparkle as she performs Eleanor Tindall’s comic piece of magical realism with a contagious delight. She is a joy to watch, because, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that she is playing a bear. She hasn’t always been a bear, she was once like all of us, and this is the story of how that changed.
Teenage life, friendship, celebrity, social media, the judgement of women, double standards and morality are all brought to life with freshness and exuberance. Cally is such a fun yet complex character, making her an engaging and exciting narrator. If you put aside the whole bear situation, this is very vivid and realistic depiction of growing up, exploring your sexuality, and trying to find your place in the world. Or not. It takes some of us longer than others to work out who we want to be. With Cally we have a character who doesn’t have the focus of her friends. She is still working herself out. Until the whole bear thing happens, but maybe that will provide the focus she needs.
Peppered with random magical moments, that disrupt the more realistic aspects of the narrative flow, this is a piece that successfully balances light and dark. I was fully engaged throughout, intrigued to see where Cally’s story would take us. Her life is so relatable, yet she is a bear. That keeps the mind focused.
Aneesha Srinivasan’s direction keeps the play moving with an absorbing momentum, and an energy that brings out all the comic elements, while also landing the more serious aspects of the story with great success. Ultimately one could argue that this is a play about responsibility, and how women seem to carry more of it than men. But that feels like a simplification that doesn’t do full justice to the different threads and complexities of the piece.
If this is Eleanor Tindall’s debut, I will be excited to follow her play-writing career. She has a clear talent for developing interesting and engaging characters, while merging the real with the strange in a way that surprises but doesn’t jar. Creating such a well balanced dark comedy as her first piece, is extraordinary.
‘Before I was a Bear’ is a funny, energetic, inventive and original dark comedy that delights and surprises. Jacoba Williams shines as Cally, there is such an infectious humour to her performance.
The only downside to having had such a wonderful night at the Bunker, is the growing sadness that they will be closing next year. Such an exciting venue, but it is the people who make it, and I really hope they find a new home. Sadly I didn’t win on Euromillions last night, so I won’t be able to help fund that dream.