I note with some interest that both the shows I saw as part of the Litmus Fest 2016 at the Pleasance Theatre almost took pride in being somewhat unfocused, as though going off-piste was a deliberate strategy. Contrast that, for instance, with the number of revivals or adaptations of older works that hit the London stage, and there’s a part of me that thinks that there might well be something in presenting works that are eccentric and bohemian as a counterbalance to the tried and tested. There was a strong metaphor in Skeletons, presented by ‘Performance Anxiety’, and Digs, presented by ‘Theatre with Legs’, which both ended with the stage in a state of chaos and disorder. And yet the two shows could not have been more different from one another.
Skeletons was one of those shows that began before it properly began, with what is known as ‘pre-show’, where the actors appear on stage, in character, before the start time, even as the audience is still filing in. What follows is a hilarious send-up of the burgeoning life coach industry, which bookends a wider exploration of being comfortable with being human. In essence, what the show suggests is that a strive for perfection can spill over into becoming the living dead, insofar as the focus is so relentlessly zeroed in on getting everything correct and in order that one takes oneself too seriously. Devoid of any enjoyment of the one life we have to live, an unhealthy and imbalanced passion to be the best one can be is paradoxically a cause of unnecessary strife.
The show is not nearly as preachy as I have made it out to be, if at all, and deploys a wide range of methods to demonstrate example after example of credible scenarios. Not always easy to watch, it is always engaging, not least in a moment of collective audience participation (don’t be put off by this, it’s really nothing major), most of which is unrepeatable for its coarse language. What is it with theatre and swearing?
Digs began with an overly long piece of recorded dialogue, which I was unable to follow properly, at least partly through lack of coherency. Elsewhere, there seemed to be as much spoken word in some scenes as there is in an episode of the television sitcom Mr Bean, and where events were almost over-explained in Skeletons, they were simply left open to interpretation in Digs. It is, for the most part, an intriguing piece of theatre, and as somebody who has been fortunate or unfortunate enough not to have ever been in a position where I have lived in a communal living space, I found the observations about living with others eye-opening and fascinating. The poetic style of some of the script was particularly pleasing, complete with blank verse and rhyming couplets. That this production has made such a way with words work in a play set in contemporary London is no mean feat.
I make the following suggestions for improvement. It will, I hope, please the production companies involved that all are relatively negligible. With regard to Skeletons, the use of musical interludes is slightly overdone and repetitive, and the play could be reworked to have more than one scene being unpacked in rotation, such that whilst parties to one scene are setting up for the next ‘bit’, the action switches to progress another scene forward, and so on, back and forth. This may, I will concede, prove somewhat exhausting for both cast and audience. I also regret that the final dance sequence went largely unappreciated by yours truly on account of the lower stage lights being so incredibly dazzling that I was forced to avert my gaze. With regard to Digs, only the opening scene, where the audience is staring at an empty stage, needs truncating, if removed altogether. There is scope for deeper character development on the two housemates – if it was explained how they met, for instance, I do not recall it.
An amusing if quirky event, Litmus Fest 2016 is a good opportunity to sample new writing. And if these are merely ‘works in progress’ the eventual finished plays will, I suspect, be well worth seeing.
Review by Chris Omaweng
This year, Pleasance is opening its London doors over the month of August to give space to exciting and brave
theatre making. The festival offers the six projects involved; 2 weeks of research and development space, 2 days of
technical play in their chosen theatre space at Pleasance Islington, and 2 public performances of 30-60 minutes
work-in-progress. Alongside this, we are also offering mentoring and support as a venue, and have initiated a peer
mentoring system to try and encourage the artists to look to one another for support with their new practice.
The work was selected through an application process. As a venue, we were looking for work that was
experimenting, and pushing artists out of their comfort zone by playing with something new for them as a
company. Whether that be new technical elements to their work, new collaborations, a new form of practice, a
new style of making etc. Litmus Fest is not limited to emerging artists; we aim for it to be an opportunity for
artists at all levels of experience to develop their practice.
From Tues 27th Sept to Sun 2nd Oct 2016, we will be presenting the findings of this exciting festival with you at
London, N7 9EF