Spirit - Press Reviews
Who would you want alongside you in a crisis, a baker, or an actor? And if you needed someone to take your place in the conscription queue, would you chose a pastry chef or a pastry- cook? Improbable provide a simple tale that – improbably enough - seeks to compare the quiet dignity of three baker brothers with the posturing needfulness of its own three players.
For their new chamber piece, co-directors Arlene Audergon and Julian Crouch have returned to simple roots. A precariously raked wooden slope site in darkness. Three wooden hatches are slowly removed from below. Then, through these trapdoors, each barely shoulder-wide, squeeze the performers Guy Dartnell, Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson. In unassuming mufti, they look languorously around, allowing the silence to mellow and then one of them asks, “ Is that something reversing?”
Episodes like this, which punctuate the piece, have the relaxed immediacy of improvisation and the unhurried manipulation of our own tense expectations. But from this quiet (and very funny) intro, the actors move carefully into a story of three brothers, all bakers living in a country cursed by civil war. Ted is due to be conscripted, but Bob, his sprite- like younger brother, does a Sydney Carton and goes instead.
There are no costumes and no furniture – everything we see is conjured on, this slatted wooden slope, the characters seen waist-up through the grid of trapdoors, diving back through the hatches or rolling down the slope. They’re three boys playing with toys; to create larger panoramas, they produce cardboard planes, silver guns or rubbery puppets. Propped on the edge of the stage, these then strut and shoot like macabre, headless Action Men, then, with simple addition of a round bread roll they become snap- jawed, bullying square-bashers.
But the most macabre dummy is Bob himself. After bombing a town – cardboard cut-out skyscrapers sprout and then subside between the planks of the slope - his plane is shot down. Grasping his “corpse” with the same brutal nonchalance with which they worked the puppets, brother Tom and Ted enact their own eagerly imagined stories of Bob’s survival, his escape and his last, suicidal battle to save himself. Dartnell and Simpson wok McDermott’s body, turn his head, fire his pistol with boyish “tiffs” and “pows”
You won’t exactly get narrative from Improbable, but you just have to wait for these imagistic gems. The limp, lifeless mannequin that McDermott’s body becomes expresses everything that the brothers leave unsaid about loss- and about the need to keep someone’s spirit alive.
Knowing in their bones that theatre is a living art, the member so Improbable are keen to play with and even spook its conventions. SPIRIT, the London- based theatre company’s latest work, is a mournful yet often comic act of the imagination that blurs the line between reality and fiction with charm and clarity.
Two of Improbable’s key personnel were largely responsible for SHOCKHEADED PETER, the deliciously grisly musical- comedy currently playing in the West End. SPIRIT, which opened a short run at Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court last week, is a work of gentler invention, but equally vital.
It was devised by Guy Dartnell, Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson, along with co-directors Julian Crouch and Arlene Audergon. The latter, a specialist in conflict resolution, helped the cast deal with obstacles that arose during their own creative process.
Gradually the show grew into a metaphor for the bellicose instincts of the performers and the brothers they pretend to be onstage.
The trio play themselves and sibling bakers, the youngest of whom (McDermott) flies off to fight an unnamed, all- purpose war. They also function as storytellers and puppeteers who manipulate objects and each other.
They repeatedly drop the bakers’ tale to pursue their own emotional lines as sometimes less than co-operative or mutually admiring colleagues.
The men’s internal demons are manifest as doughy-looking, headless puppets afflicted with a massive capacity for brutality.
This is theatre that doesn’t hand out its meanings on a plate. It is up to us to connect the dots that draw out the show’s themes (masculine, aggression, mortality, make- believe). The most macabre, beautiful and funny passage finds the “corpse” of McDermott treated like a puppet by his actor- brothers. Eventually he “wakes-up” and, banishing the others, holds himself hostage, threatening his own imaginary life.
Again Improbable demonstrates a genius for achieving sophisticated effects via simple means. The stage, beautifully lit by Colin Grenfell, is a handsome piece of steeply raked wood with pop-up trap doors. A large sheet and a few sandbags convert the slope into a bedroom. A small- scale city made of paper cut outs slips up through slits in the wood. Then, in the subtlest suggestion of wartime devastation, this instinct civilisation falls back through the cracks.
Improvisations that open and close the show – essentially relaxed bits of quasi- therapeutic true confession - risk waxing too lax. Still the three actors generate a load of goodwill as people who share a palpable history on and off stage and a belief, to quote McDermott, in “theatre to die for.”
As a rule, the Royal Court tends to programme formally conventional theatre mired in the moral issues of the day. It’s great then to see it giving space to a theatre company that, while certainly responsive to contemporary concerns, is anything but straightforward.
A steep raked stage punctured with trap doors, a few model buildings, a couple of loaves of bread and the odd puppet provide the nuts and bolts for Improbables work, which takes as its starting point the youngest of three baker brothers departing for an unnamed war.
This meditative piece of theatre, which combines improvised comedy with storytelling, play- acting and the occasional meta- textual observation, asks far more questions about the nature of conflict than it answers. With the story of brother Bob as the loosely guiding narrative, the three excellent performers (Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson and Guy Dartnell) act out battle between puppets, recall childhood experiences with model aeroplanes and argue between themselves to the point at which it is no longer certain where play ends and real conflicts begin, where childhood ends and adulthood starts.
Nothing is conclusive; instead, the dynamic rest in the inclusive world of possibility Improbable create with a bit of wood and honest storytelling.
Sometimes that can be far more thought- provoking than heavily worked scripts and expensive special effects.
A transcendent night can be had at the Royal Court watching SPIRIT. This is the latest company devised gem by Improbable, whose core members include Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch – the creative duo behind the flamboyant West End hit SHOCKHEADED PETER. Whilst just as fantastically inventive, SPIRIT is a more intimate, quiet three-hander about brotherly love, productive and destructive impulses. It’s quietly played out on a narrow, steep slope of wooden planks.
A naughty grinning yet sad- eyed trio – the impish McDermott, chunky Guy Dartnell and lanky Lee Simpson - enact a folk tale about three village bakers whose fraternal fondness is disrupted by battles for supremacy. The youngest, a restless dreamer, becomes a fighter pilot, leaving his siblings to struggle with feelings of guilt and remorse.
The storytelling is inspired, flexible, funny and poignant. In one scene, centuries of civil war are played out by small, ghoulish rag puppets who batter and yell at each other with monstrous heads fashioned out of torn bread rolls. At another point, our threesome just keep gleefully sliding down the sage until that game transmutes into a danse macabre, a vision of humanity hurtling into a mass grave. The bakers’ tale is, meanwhile, framed within two tongue- in –cheek yet painfully autobiographical therapy sessions, where the trio confess to the artistic troubles they’ve had with one another. What’s wonderful is that SPIRIT, co- directed by Crouch and Arlene Audergon – who’s an expert in conflict resolution – was born out of a near- fatal bust- up of Improbable itself.
As the Cultural Industry’s theatrically thrilling SHOCKHEADED PETER plays to packed houses at the Piccadilly Theatre, its co- directors, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, present a more thoughtful, much quieter – though no less theatrically inventive – piece with their own company, Improbable, in the intimate Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. SPIRIT employs many elements familiar to connoisseurs of the company’s work; deeply personal reminiscence, subtle, almost imperceptible improvisation and inspired puppetry involving everyday objects. However, this time the team has employed Arlen Audergon, a leader of UN – sponsored conflict resolution projects in countries like Croatia, to both help them devise the piece, and co-direct with Julian Crouch. The result is a gentle meditation on the causes and consequences of war, revolving around a tale of sibling rivalry between three essentially nice brothers in some unspecified, war- torn land. And if this overall sweetness of tone risks making the show at times a tad fey, this is compensated for by moments of real insight into our aggressive inclinations.
The brothers here are all bakers – cue much breaking of bread and dough- as – you- would – be- done- by –associations- and are played by the wry Lee Simpson, the dreamy Phelim McDermott and the heavy set yet vulnerable Guy Dartnell. Performing entirely on a steeply raked wooden platform generally acting as the roof of their bakery, the three play toy soldiers with bread- headed toy puppets and model aeroplanes, and look forward excitedly to being able to the skies as fighter pilots when their call up papers arrive – so much so that the younger brother Bob (McDermott) steals an elder brother’s letter and gets drafted himself. That grown men of war are still very much boys playing with their toys is beautifully illustrated by a sequence involving one of Bob’s bombing raids, enacted using a toy town of cardboard cut- out buildings, over which Bob swoops and dives with his model aircraft.
But where the show really takes flight is in the moments demonstrating how the act of play can lead to an imaginative appreciation of the consequences of war. In one disturbing and deeply moving sequence, two brothers attempt to come to terms with the death of the third using his corpse as a kind of puppet. However hard they try to animate him, they fail to return the departed spirit to the hideously lifeless features of their loved one. In an otherwise ethereal – if consistently engaging – evening, this is a moment to put you off violence for life.
You’ve only got a week left to see this 85-minute show, teasing, sad and funny, a serious intellectual joke, a play about the theatre, life and death – yes, that’s about all. Performed by Phelim McDermott, Guy Dartnell and Lee Simpson, and devised by them with Julian Crouch and Arlene Audergon, it is about three brothers in a war-torn country, plus clumsy looking but delicately made puppets. The set is a steeply raked platform. Here toy soldiers are trained and toy planes bomb toy cities into oblivion. Spirit is also about the theatre: the stories it tells, whose stories, and to whom. I don’t know whether performers and devisers discuss modernism in the rehearsal room, but the show it in action, question its meaning, affirm it, send it up brilliantly. The theatre is life that looks about itself; life's a story that needs theatre to tell it. Book now.
The title is telling: SPIRIT finds Improbable distilling its magical ideas about theatre to their purest, most striking essence, their spirit. When the three performers – Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson and Guy Dartnell – shift from being in character to being themselves, it’s to address their very purpose on stage. Their remarkable puppetry techniques are used on each other. They destroy their story so that they can continually rewrite the script.
There isn’t much story: in a village at war live three bakers, brothers; the eldest, Ted gets called up to fight, but the youngest, Bob, goes in his place. With this act of self-sacrifice, Bob attempts to create his own life: before now his movements, his thoughts, his dreams have been directed by his brothers. That’s one of the more astonishing things about Spirit: the way McDermott, playing Bob, becomes a puppet, an object for Dartnell and Simpson to animate. His body is expertly, poignantly manipulated; so are the doughy dolls with buns for heads, comic soldiers n a warped version of Mortal Combat.
If conflict is the theme, so is resolution (Arlene Audergon, co director with Julian Crouch, is a specialist in the field). When Bob bombs a city, Dartnell and Simpson rebuild it to describe its inhabitants. The trio row fiercely on stage, a reflection of the arguments that nearly split the company during the shows devising, but then slide down the sloping stage together like happy children, friends. Dartnell movingly describes wearing one of his father’s suits to his father’s funeral. Life goes on.
SPIRIT isn’t perfect: it could do with more narrative, there are humdrum scenes and long silences, and the self-conscious commentary is heavy-handed. But for this thrillingly rambunctious company, perfection isn’t the point: making people think, feel, laugh, frown and sigh is. SPIRIT does all of that. I hadn’t expected to review it, so I bought a ticket a month ago: rather than sell it on, I’m looking forward to going again.
It is a slippery slope on which the wondrous events of SPIRIT occur. That's speaking literally. The tiny wooden stage for this funny, melancholy and altogether entrancing journey into a land of dreams, warfare and actorly neurosis, which opened last night at the New York Theater Workshop, is slanted to such an extreme degree that you would assume that rappelling gear would be required for anyone who appears on it.
Yet Guy Dartnell, Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson, the three actors who make up the cast of SPIRIT, directed by Julian Crouch and Arlene Audergon of the London-based Improbable troupe, scramble up and down this perilously raked box with the heedless grace and alacrity of little boys playing king of the mountain. Occasionally, as boys will, they go crashing or tumbling downward, looking like soldiers who have just been shot. Then they often lie stock-still. And a feeling creeps in that what's happening isn't merely child's play.
SPIRIT, scheduled to run here for four weeks, is poised on a perilous slope in ways other than the merely physical. Whimsy, of the dreaded variety associated with story theater and pantomime, threatens to rear its precious noggin as the cast animates little headless manikins, weighted burlap sacks and various forms of bread. Hovering also is the cloudy menace of the smugness that comes with improvisational performers annotating their own performances, while interjecting confessional snippets about their lives. And, really, isn't it dangerously arrogant to start by evoking Samuel Beckett's visions of human bodies in confinement?
But while they may flirt with obnoxiousness, the creators of SPIRIT are masters of balance, restoring sharpness and integrity to theatrical tools that in other hands have been blunted by overuse. Improbable, after all, is the company that summoned, in ways equally charming and haunting, the poltergeists of everyday life via household cellophane tape in 70 HILL LANE And Mr. Crouch and Mr. McDermott are responsible for the self-imploding Victorian spook house called SHOCKHEADED PETER, seen Off Broadway last season.
SPIRIT is, as its title promises, the airiest of these exercises. This performance is set not in the bump-riddled night of 70 HILL LANE and SHOCKHEADED PETER, but in a brighter, clearer realm of the imagination. Or so it seems at first. As Messrs. Dartnell, McDermott and Simpson wander in and out of a fragmented bedtime-storylike account of three brothers, bakers in a war-torn land, they gently probe recesses in our instinctive responses to images of battle and the masculine myths that exalt them.
For SPIRIT is all about boys and their toys: soldier dolls and model airplanes and plastic guns and jeeps. SPIRIT is also about actors and their tricks. And these two levels of play converge as the performers enact (with detours into autobiographical asides) the story of a young baker who went to war while his older brothers stayed home.
This all takes place on and in that raked box of a stage, a deceptively simple-looking construct with removable panels that allow the cast members to pop like chipmunks out of holes and sink back in like water down a drain. An entire town grows into being and then shrinks into nonexistence, with two-dimensional buildings that later turn into letters to be read aloud, missives from a world blown apart by bombs. (The design is by Mr. Crouch, Graeme Gilmour, Rob Thirtle and Helen Maguire; Colin Grenfell is responsible for exquisitely subtle lighting that seems to emanate from your own changes in mood.)
First seen pulling themselves awkwardly into view out of tight, square openings, the three actors initially bring to mind the haplessly tethered souls of Beckett's "Endgame" and "Happy Days." But while SPIRIT softly echoes the existential futility and gallows humor of those works, it is never as opaque or forbidding. Audiences who have enjoyed, say, "Blue Man Group" should feel perfectly happy at SPIRIT, as its performers bring a corps of pliable puppets to life by endowing them with makeshift heads that include rolls, a baguette, a toy car and a pistol. Then there is the antic physics involved in turning that sloped stage into a bed, a testament to the visual possibilities of gunny sacks and a single sheet.
Anyone of open sensibilities, though, is bound to be more than just entertained. Slowly and unobtrusively, as the actors interject childhood memories of fathers who were veterans and visions of airplanes and funerals, the show puts death at center stage. This does not mean that the production loses it sense of humor.
On the contrary, the most impressive accomplishment of SPIRIT is its ability to blend so fluidly what's funny and what's unspeakably serious. Certain vignettes run you swiftly through an entire scale of emotions, like the one in which two of the brothers treat the inanimate body of the other as if it were a puppet. Comedians regularly trade on the blurred line between laughter and screams in an absurd world. But SPIRIT does so with a richer, more wrenching ambivalence than jokes ever allow.
I almost forgot to mention the fourth actor in this production, who fleetingly stole the spotlight when I saw the show. That was a blue-bottle fly, or I think it was. It was hard to identify it from the audience, but it definitely landed on the stage, inspiring much rumination and argument among the actors. There is no guarantee that this special guest star will be available on other nights.
But should a Gila monster drift off the streets and into the New York Theater Workshop (and stranger things happen in the East Village), I have no doubt that the actors in SPIRIT would embrace the creature and weave it seamlessly into the show's design. That's the level of creative confidence and suppleness at work here. Anyone who has yet to grasp that theater can go places no other art form can need only experience this transporting 90 minutes, in which flesh is truly made spirit.