'ARE you in the play or the audience?" a man jokingly asks after Belt Up have got me sitting on a cushion, wearing a pink party hat, eating a malted milk biscuit and drinking lemonade from a tea cup. "Both," I reply - and I hate to have to tell him, but so is he.
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Lorca is Dead
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The Boy James
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C Soco (Venue 348)
This new collection of shows sees the award-winning company known for their immersive style of theatre return to the fire-damaged wing of C Soco, which they have transformed into a 1920s-1930s styled "house" with different rooms allocated to different stories.
In James Wilkes's adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis we follow the failing fortunes of Gregor, a browbeaten salesman gradually ostracised by his family when he begins a monstrous transformation into a beetle. The story is ideally suited to its period setting - a place filled with raucous parties and Charleston dancing, but also a destructive lack of compassion - and Belt Up has created a many-layered world that not only looks and feels spectacular, but is filled with the rules and conventions of a more restrictive age. Wilkes is stunning in the role of Gregor, physically embodying his character's transformation, clambering the walls and ceiling, with pain-filled eyes that cry out "I'm still human" to the people he loves who refuse to look back at him.
Lorca is Dead, an original play written by Dominic J Allen, is more unruly, but well doused in Belt Up's passion for audience participation. In it, the infamous figures of surrealist art pay tribute to their hero, the poet Federico GarcÃa Lorca - who pretty much everyone in the room gets a chance to play. While Salvador Dali is portrayed as an egotistical womaniser, poor Magritte is laughed at by the rest of the group and depicted as a hapless clown. It's all very funny and as the artists argue about their ambiguous "philosophy", we too are encouraged to look at our surroundings from a new perspective. "It's all just too adolescent," complains a woman at the end and while that may be true in places, being adolescent is also quite enjoyable - maybe something that we, unlike the surrealists of the 1920s, have come to forget.
Allen's reworking of Homer's Odyssey paints a multi-dimensional nightmarish vision in which the engaging cast play with different roles in order to boldly question the narrative's origins and provide topical commentary on wars past and present. The story of a struggle to return home doesn't really emerge until some way in and ultimately the play buckles under the weight of its own ambitions as the action veers into overly complex metatheatricality, but there are some striking moments in which we are asked to behave in ways we might otherwise condemn and do so with unsettling relish.
Back in the world of comedy, Wilkes's original play Atrium explores a compelling relationship between a self-obsessed "artist", Malcolm and the ghost writer he has charged with penning his increasingly fantastical memoirs. We are the make-believe audience in Malcolm's head and he delights in using and abusing those around him for our amusement - particularly Butter, his lovely maid. At one point, our lusciously evil host claims that before he's done with us, we'll be laughing at something both horrific and sad, and then feeling guilty about it. Through a conclusion that expertly subverts our preconceptions surrounding truth and fiction, this brilliantly comes to take place.
In contrast, Alexander Wright's adaptation of Sophocles's Antigone fails to capitalise fully on its emotive story of a woman who is prepared to die in order to pay her respects to her brother. The dialogue feels too needy, demanding our emotions rather than eliciting them naturally and while there are some good moments of physicality, the narrative's slow pace loses the audience, making it a show where we aren't real participants.
Jethro Compton's Quasimodo, an intense adaptation of Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, tells a simpler story - and is more emotionally compelling because of this. In it, the deformed Quasimodo attempts to find love with more attractive Esmeralda, who wants nothing to do with him. The superficial importance of appearance is a theme draws parallels with Gregor's plight in Metamorphosis, as well as our responses when we are asked to decide which audience members have "ugly faces". As with many of Belt Up's plays this year, characters question their versions of reality and we are left saddened by Quasimodo's attempts to tell his story as he would like it, rather than how it is.
Compton's retelling of a Cornish fairytale, Octavia - Belt Up's first ever children's show - paints a lighter, brighter world, although one so jam-packed with ideas that it can be difficult to absorb. Under the shade of a tree decked in fairy lights, we follow a princess who sacrifices herself in order to save the life of her prince and bring peace to a war-torn land. This is the most appealing room in Belt Up's house, but it is undershot with a courageously sad ending that bravely asks us to contemplate the things in life that are worth dying for.
Bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood is Wright's The Boy James, an original play inspired by the life and works of J M Barrie, the troubled author of Peter Pan. This is the darkest piece in the collection, in which we see a young boy with a dazzling outlook - beautifully realised through the transcendent dialogue - gradually broken down and betrayed by those around him as he is forced to grow up. It's a disturbing piece that contains particularly uncomfortable scenes of sexual abuse and a horribly painful ending where a member of the audience (who tonight happens to be an arrestingly good actor) is required to read the boy a letter confirming that he has been abandoned by his one true friend. Compton is riveting in his performance as the boy and his devastated expression, the last thing you will see before being made to leave the room, will stay with you for a long time after.
l Metamorphosis until 30 August; Lorca is Dead until 30 August; Odyssey until 30 August; Atrium until 29 August; Antigone until 30 August; Quasimodo until 30 August; Octavia until 30 August; The Boy James until 29 August