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Review of Frogman at Shoreditch Town Hall

Frogman: Lily, Meera and Shaun
Frogman: Lily, Meera and Shaun

Frogman, devised by Jack Lowe’s science-‘n’-theatre company curious directive, is an extraordinary piece of immersive theatre, only this time the immersion – and we are talking about water – is through high-quality virtual reality masks, which allow the filmic story of the play to develop in two linked strands: through the words and actions of a “real” cast, acting on stage in front of the audience and by a second “virtual” cast, observed and heard through the masks in a – well, curious – dreamlike effect.

After the audience has assembled in a dark room taking chairs along two sides of a stretch of bleached white sand, they learn they are members of a jury by a disembodied voice.

The voice belongs to a representative of the Queensland Courts Service and the role of the “jurors” is to examine evidence that will be presented to them as part of a trial. While this framing device isn’t wholly successful – the play itself isn’t presented as a trial nor is the jury’s view ever sought – it fulfils the need for a briefing about how and when to use the masks and, more importantly, defines the place and time that Frogman is set as well as its focus, a ‘cold case’ investigation into the disappearance of a teenage girl twenty-three years earlier and the possible involvement in her death of a police diver.

On stage, the audience observes the interrogation of Meera Clarke, the police diver’s daughter. She had been the only friend of the missing girl, Ashleigh, and a police officer probes – and records – her memories, of her father and her friend.

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In the main VR strand, set shortly after Ashleigh’s disappearance, the audience observes Meera and her “Coral Club” friends, playing games, watching horror films and speculating about the disappearance.

So far so Stephen King but in a separate VR strand the masks take the audience underwater on the original search for the girl’s body and belongings in the cold clear waters above the Barrier Reef. Gradually, the layers of truth are revealed and there is a further VR strand that takes place before the disappearance.

By the end of this tight one-hour production, the audience has learned most of what happened and why. Possibly they have been told all of it, depending what you make of the play’s final scene which seems to provide a simple but convincing explanation of the play’s central riddle.

Recollecting the Australian classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Frogman combines elements of the thriller with an exploration of friendship and innocence, wisely skirting around bigger, obvious themes like climate change and its impact on the Barrier Reef.

Anyone who hasn’t encountered VR before might initially be a little put off by the prospect of having to wear a mask albeit only for relatively short bursts at a time. Anyone familiar with the sweat and discomfort of the plague doctor masks used by Punchdrunk might dread it.

However, there is nothing to fear. The masks fit well and seem clean; most importantly, the masks work brilliantly. While the VR sections haven’t been filmed in 3D, they are very effective and allow for the layering of memories and sounds in a way that would otherwise be impossible. It is also important to recognise that, while in a production like Frogman, the cast is inevitably subordinate to the technology, the performances are excellent, particularly Georgina Strawson and Ava Ryan as the older and younger Meera.

Highly recommended.

5 Star Rating

Review by Louis Mazzini

The Great Barrier Reef, 1995. Meera is eleven. It’s her first sleepover. Strawberry Dunkaroos, Sega Mega Drive and coral fragment analysis descends into torch-lit storytelling from sleeping bags.
Frogman submerges the audience deep into the Great Barrier Reef and carefree summers of long ago. Blending youthful nostalgia with a dark sense of haunting unease, the show captures that yearning to return to purer days, real or imagined and the pain at the realisation that those days are gone forever. Nothing will ever be the same again.

Directed by Artistic Director and Founder Jack Lowe, the show was three years in the making and Lowe worked alongside specialists in marine biology from Hull’s Deep Aquarium, coral reef scientist Jamie Craggs (Horniman Museum), Sebastian Hennige (Heriot-Watt) and Creative Technologist Ed Greig (Deloitte Digital).

The creation of Frogman has included underwater film shoots in Australia and Indonesia and was made in close collaboration with schools from Hull and Backbone Youth Arts, Brisbane, a leading Australian experimental youth theatre. Together they have created the show exploring themes of childhood, parenthood and the impending coral reef bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.

Aysha Kala (Indian Summers/ Ivo Van Hove’s Obsession) will play DCI Fiona Webb for the Shoreditch Town Hall run only of curious directive’s stunningly ambitious VR thriller Frogman. This role was a voiced part in the original production. She will join Georgina Strawson as Meera in this reworked version which sees renowned theatre-makers curious directive play in London for the first time since 2016. This new version of Frogman will play London’s Shoreditch Town Hall from 4th to 14th April.

The cast also includes voice work from Johnny Flynn as Douglas Clarke, Anna Procter as Cathy Selbourne, Kate Shenton as Jen Philips and Russell Woodhead as Ryan Willis.

The VR cast features four non-professional young actors from schools in Brisbane, Australia. They are Ava Ryan (aged 11) as Young Meera, Indiah Morris (11) as Lily McCullen, Sol Castanho (11) as Shaun Jacobs and Milla Webb (13) as Ashleigh Richardson.

Frogman
Theatre Direction and Cinematography by Jack Lowe
Designed by Camilla Clark with Sound design by Pete Malkin
Creative Technology by Ed Greig (Deloitte Digital) and Software Development by German Munoz.
Wednesday 4 to Saturday 14 April at Shoreditch Town Hall
www.shoreditchtownhall.com
And then onwards to London’s Artsdepot from 17-21 April 2018

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