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Review of Dumbstruck by Fine Chisel Theatre Company

Dumbstruck Production PhotoDumbstruck is the latest production from Fine Chisel Theatre Company, a group of talented young actors and musicians. The show explores expression through communication, from illicit rock and roll played from a pirate radio station to a lonely whale’s song, travelling hundreds of miles through the sea.

Their protagonist, Ted, played by Robin McLoughlin, is a scientist who finds himself on a remote island in the North Pacific logging the migratory journeys of whales, taken from government underwater recordings.  As he patiently listens for the animals’ frequencies and calls to one another, he hears an anomaly: a whale singing at a much higher frequency than the others. He calls the whale ‘52’, (due to the frequency at which it is singing – 52-Hertz) and uses his radio connection to try and communicate with it. But Ted, like the whale, appears to be isolated, and Ted eventually takes drastic steps to connect with his lonely friend in the ocean.

Before that though, the audience travels back in time, firstly to Ted’s childhood, and then to his days as a university lecturer.

During his teaching days, Ted meets Fiona, (Holly Beasley-Garrigan) a bright and feisty student who convinces him to help her set up a pirate radio station, broadcast from a cave. She and her group of musicians use the station to play banned music, from foot-stomping rock and roll, to barbershop, and later to broadcast political messages – advocating freedom and choice and criticising censorship. But Ted, unable to support the students’ progressive opinions, sabotages the station by interfering with the signals. It’s a sad moment, and suggests why Ted, in the end, becomes isolated.

Along with Beasley-Garrigan, musicians George Williams, Carolyn Goodwin and Tom Spencer display an impressive range of talent, seamlessly switching from vocals to guitar, bassoon to percussion to play a variety of musical genres. They easily evoke the excitement of the 60s radio station, then meld beautifully into the serene, plaintive songs of the whales, and clicks and taps of the underwater recordings, on that lonely island in the North Pacific. Beasley-Garrigan also dances to express Fiona’s avant-garde, dynamic outlook – as a character she is clearly able to express herself far more than her teacher Ted, and their relationship breaks down as a result.

Fine Chisel’s production is very slick, especially with regards to the music. At times the story is perhaps a little underdeveloped – we can guess as to why Ted eventually arrived at the island, but it’s never made totally clear. The audience is also left a little in the dark as to why the 52-Hertz whale sings at a different frequency to all of the others. But this is intended as a surreal piece, so one may argue that not all questions need to be answered. Besides, even if you don’t quite understand, the quite excellent musical talent makes this an enjoyable and varied show with a superb and energetic cast.

Winner of the Fringe First Award for New Writing 2013, Dumbstruck plays at the Battersea Arts Centre until 19th July.

Review by Emma Slater


A new play with songs touring May-July 2014
Fine Chisel hit the road with their Fringe First and MTN Award-winning play about the loneliest whale in the world.

Armed with a stage full of instruments and a box of chalk, Fine Chisel’s actor-musicians conjure the rush of waves, the buzz of a 1960s pirate radio station, and the far-from-dry world of marine mammal bioacoustics.

Dumbstruck will tour to theatres across the UK and Ireland, including Battersea Arts Centre, The Bike Shed Theatre Exeter, Tobacco Factory Theatres Bristol and Cork Opera House.

Dumbstruck follows the life of Ted Tomkins, a brilliant scientist alone on an Alaskan island. Ted is a communications expert specialising in whale song. One day he notices a call unlike any he’s heard before… So begins his fascination with the (true) story of the loneliest whale in the world. As these remarkable events unfold, we are transported back through Ted’s memories: to a pirate radio station in the 1960s and, back further, to his unique childhood. The more we learn about Ted’s life, the more we understand his desperate need to communicate with this extraordinary whale.

Tom Spencer, director of Fine Chisel and performer, says: ‘We can’t wait to share this story with new audiences. Dumbstruck is a joy to perform: foot-stomping rock n’ roll tunes one minute, a lecture about underwater communication the next’.

David Jubb, Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre, writes: ‘Dumbstruck was one of the best things I saw in Edinburgh this year, and proved that this young company is one to watch. Dumbstruck demonstrates Fine Chisel’s fresh approach to storytelling, exceptional musicianship and skill at playfully building and shifting their relationship with an audience’.

Fine Chisel was founded in 2010 by Tom Spencer. The company is based in Bristol, but is fast establishing a reputation as a vibrant new presence on the touring circuit – both as theatre makers and as a folk n’ roll band. Dumbstruck builds upon the success of Firing Blanks (‘pitch perfect’ – Evening Standard), Midnight at the Boar’s Head (‘genuinely outstanding’ – ThreeWeeks), and most recently Icarus, a large-scale community folk opera made with York Theatre Royal.

Dumbstruck by Fine Chisel
Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, SW11 5TN
2nd to 19th July  Wednesday to Saturday
Box Office: 020 7223 2223

Sunday 5th July 2014


  • Emma Slater

    Emma is an avid theatre-goer and amateur performer who enjoys reviewing productions of all genres. She currently works for ITV and previous positions include journalist for the BBC, and Channel 4. Her favourite musical is probably Beauty and the Beast...perhaps because she's always had a secret hankering to play Belle!

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