Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Review: No One is Coming to Save You (This Noise)

Sunday 30th June 2019
HOME, Manchester

Yesterday, I posted a review of Electrolyte, which I saw at HOME, Manchester as part of this year’s Incoming Festival. This is a review of the second festival production I saw that night: No One is Coming to Save You by This Noise. I’ll be reviewing both productions on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version of my review of No One is Coming to Save You

It was interesting to watch No One is Coming to Save You immediately after seeing Electrolyte (which was on the bill on the same night), as the two productions are really quite different. While Electrolyte is a loud (even brash) piece of gig theatre, No One is Coming to Save You is an experimental piece, with its feet in a literary, rather than musical, tradition. Electrolyte explores and celebrates the bonds of friendship; No One is Coming to Save You examines isolation, and what happens to the human mind when there’s no one to talk to. Electrolyte is about mental illness, whereas No One is Coming to Save You is about mental health.

The play opens onto a relatively bare stage. There’s a boxy old TV on a chair, and a piece of AstroTurf on the floor. And there are two people lying on the AstroTurf. These are our two unnamed characters – narrators, really – played by Agatha Elwes and Rudolphe Mdlongwa.

Written by Nathan Ellis and directed by Charlotte Fraser, No One is Coming to Save You is a piece of off-beat narrative theatre that moves from funny to unsettling (and sometimes combines the two), and which takes place in the minds of two people who cannot sleep.

‘There is a woman…’ intones Elwes, as she begins to outline the minutiae of what the unnamed woman, who is sitting alone in a dark kitchen, is doing. ‘There is a man…’ says Mdlongwa, before beginning his monologue, describing the man. The piece is a duologue, rather than a dialogue (for the most part), as the two take it in turns to speak, moving around the small stage space as though the other isn’t there. Half-full glasses of water are scattered around the floor, and the television intermittently shows disjointed images of disasters and brief captions addressing the audience.

No One is Coming to Save You is far from a comfortable linear narrative. The two performers offer oddly matter-of-fact accounts of what the two characters are thinking, but, for the most part, they do not perform as the characters. Until a short dialogue towards the end of the play, the accounts are given in third person, so the man and woman are being described (in a rather objective tone) rather than embodied. Moreover, the thoughts that are being described are fragmentary, and include supposed memories that may or may not have happened. At times, the descriptive monologues become rather surreal, and at others they take on a detached, dark tone, as the two imagine ways to hurt and destroy people around them.

It is to the performers’ credit that, despite this disjointed way of constructing and presenting narrative, the audience still feels a sense of engagement with them as ‘characters’. Elwes, in particular, is compelling as she recounts the mundanity of the woman’s work as a video logger, and her relationship with Lavender, the woman she works with. However, I also very much enjoyed Mdlongwa’s somewhat absurdist explanation of what ‘selling olive oil spread to empty nesters’ entails.

Fraser’s direction is also good here. Given that the piece is delivered entirely through two not-quite-converging monologues, the movements of the two performers around one another, and the way they almost – but not quite – overlap in their speech, are very effective. The dance break (and I’m giving no spoilers on that one) is well-timed to throw the audience off-guard.

There’s a technique in creative writing that I’ve presented several times at workshops. Take a piece of prose – no matter how cute or mundane – and put it into present (or future) tense. If it’s in first person, change it to third (or second). The result is that your mundane piece of prose takes on an unsettling – often disturbing – quality. This technique is used to good effect in No One is Coming to Save You. Much of what the characters describe is really quite ordinary – even the more exaggerated fantasies of violence are so very strange to anyone who has suffered from insomnia – but the show takes that ordinariness and presents it as extraordinary. The script imbues even the act of looking at some patio doors with a profundity that hints at something more than the act itself. And the result is really rather absorbing.

No One is Coming to Save You is not about mental illness as such, but rather the low-level anxiety, angst and ennui that permeates so much of our existence – but which is relatively easy to dispel. Its hopeful – almost reassuringly twee – ending feels fitting, as this is a play about how wrong it can feel when nothing is actually wrong. As anyone who’s struggled to sleep will know, it’s always darkest just before dawn.

I’ve seen some other reviews and interviews describing this production as belonging to a particular time, or to a particular generation. I have to disagree with these assessments. While there is some sense that the ‘modern world’ is to blame for the narrators’ angst, this is not a story simply about – dare I say it – millennials. It may be tempting to imagine that this type of anxiety, dissociation and dread is a new phenomenon, this grizzled Gen-Xer found it completely recognizable. Indeed, the use of a TV, rather than a mobile phone, as the ubiquitous site of menace, adds to this effect. (I wouldn’t want to say for sure, but I bet there’s plenty of baby boomers who’d claim the phenomenon for their generation too!)

Overall, No One is Coming to Save You is an off-key, quirky piece of theatre, with good writing and direction, and two surprisingly engaging performances. If you fancy watching something a little less linear and a little more charmingly illogical, then this is a definite recommendation for you!

No One is Coming to Save You was on in London on 27th June, Bristol on 28th June, and Manchester on 30th June, as part of this year’s Incoming Festival.

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