A startlingly original piece of new writing and a thumping debut. This production is patchy, but can only get better, and deserves a longer run and some serious development attention.
The early 21 st century saw the steady degradation of the human condition by the use and misuse of social media. To quote Douglas Adams, ‘Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.’
Writer Dan Dawes takes a Freudian concept; the normalisation of repulsive, dehumanised behaviour; and applies it to a contemporary tragedy; a cluster of teenage suicides in South Wales. Using the essay ‘Das Unheimilche’ as a starting point, he seeks the dramatic truth behind these stories. By focusing on four authentic characters, he may well have unlocked a wider truth about the human condition.
Initially isolated from each other, the cast are introduced by a series of monologues. Rory Hobson (Boy 1) is a game freak; controller and earpiece ever present; a knowing yet gullible cynic. Hardworking Girl 2 (the excellent Hiral Varsani) is in conversation with her i-pad after multiple University rejections. The ever cheerful Boy 2 (Jeanluca Murphy) chronicles the steady disintegration of his Rugby club in a cringe-worthy video blog. Uber-cool Girl 2 (Hannah Hughes) is stalking local musicians on her i-phone.
The threads combine and we see that all are classmates. As the deaths mount up, so the of collective cognitive dissonance begins. The four principles seek to comfort each other and the malign psychic feedback loop starts, amplified by the internet research and misinformation of Boy 1.
And then evil enters in. There is a point of nauseating intensity when, aided by Emma Lee Clegg’s powerful sound design, these four archetypical teenagers raise a terrifying shade; the dark heart of the human condition.
The execution and direction of the piece needs work, thank goodness, the finished version of this show will need a health warning. Character development is needed, some of the dialogue is too long and the language does not always sound authentic. The performances are too full on too early and come too close to parody. Dawes weaves in the prevalent social and economic conditions, which undermines his hypothesis.
It would be interesting to see him paired with an experienced director. The young cast do brilliantly well but this is a hard and demanding piece, with little movement allowed (they only ever engage through social media).
But all of these minor and correctable flaws. Go and see it whilst you have the chance. And then see it again when it comes back. But take a friend.
Review by Laura Thomas
As the winds of desolation whistle through the empty streets, will four teenagers join the lost souls that inhabit their crumbling community? Is it a conspiracy, a coincidence, or simply a catastrophe that so many young people have gone from just one small town? Based on real events and genuine tragedies, Steel Tumbleweed highlights some of the struggles young people face in the unforgiving society that is modern Britain. This dark, stirring play touches on the very personal heartbreaks that reflect a broken community.
Uncanny Arts is a nascent storytelling company founded by actor, director and playwright Dan Dawes. Inspired by the Sigmund Freud essay ‘Das Unheimliche’, the company aims to indulge in the grey areas of life; the spaces between places; the familiar made unfamiliar; the uncanny reality that we all live in.
Steel Tumbleweed is the company’s inaugural production and touches on the surreal dichotomy between the incorporeal voices of online life and reality, as well as the eeriness of urban emptiness.
‘A quiet city is a contradiction in terms. It is a thing uncanny, spectral.’ Max Beerbohm.
‘Steel Tumbleweed’ by Dan Dawes
Courtyard Theatre Hoxton until 23rd July
Produced by Nina Flitman for Uncanny Arts
Directed by Dan Dawes