Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Review: Underwater (Gare du Nord Theatre, GM Fringe)

Tuesday 2nd July 2019
The Whiskey Jar, Manchester

The 2019 Greater Manchester Fringe Festival began on Monday 1st July. This year’s programme is really packed, and I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer throughout the month for this blog and for North Manchester FM.

The first performance I attended this year was on Tuesday 2nd July, and it was Underwater by Gare du Nord Theatre, which is on at The Whiskey Jar in the Northern Quarter. I generally like to go into Fringe shows armed with as little information as possible – strange though that might sound! – as I love the feeling of now knowing what to expect and being surprised. However, I did have a bit of info in advance for this one, as I interviewed Geoff Baker of Gare du Nord for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special, which aired on 29th June.

Underwater is a one-act play that takes place in the sea. In truth, it would be more accurate to describe it as a mini-trilogy of plays, as it is a sequence of short pieces written by Marco Biasioli. Although it was actually a complete coincidence, it feels rather appropriate that Underwater is the first Fringe play I’ve seen this year, as I rounded off last year’s Fringe by seeing Hanging by Tangled Theatre, which was also a production of a play by Biasioli and was also performed at The Whiskey Jar.

There are some definite comparisons to be made between Hanging and Underwater – the dream-like, semi-surreal characterizations and the off-beat, disjointed dialogue being the most obvious. Both plays also use an odd, slightly unsettling humour, though this is more pronounced in Underwater, which combines verbal humour with more physical comedic turns. Certainly, there is a clearer sense of a ‘message’ in Underwater, though this is carried as much through the direction and design as through the script, but there is still some sense of ambiguity and uncertainty at times.

Billed as a ‘show in the dark’, Underwater actually starts with the stage lit up and the actors visible. As the audience arrive, the cast – Luke Richards, Eloise Bonney and David Allen – are sitting cross-legged on the stage, waiting for us. They sing snippets of water-themed pop songs and look slightly impatient. Around them are transparent bin bags filled with rubbish, and the stage is strewn with plastic debris.

The first piece in the mini-trilogy takes place on and near the surface of the sea. Allen becomes a rather fatalistic seagull (with a wistful West Country accent), sitting on a rock and delivering a monologue about the lack of other rocks and other seagulls. It’s not initially clear whether this is a vision of a future where sea levels have risen, or that Allen is playing a particularly solipsistic seagull – given the content of the rest of the play, I tend to think it’s the former.

The seagull envies the killer whales, who he believes want to eat him. Little does he know, said whales (played by Richards and Bonney) have embraced veganism and are attempting to live solely on seaweed. The plan, intended to atone for the species’ mass slaughter of krill, is not going well, and it seems that these two (named Orco and Bianca) may be the last two remaining orcas in the ocean.

I don’t want to give too much away about the direction the short pieces take – it always seems unfair to describe too much of a play of this length. Suffice to say, the vegan killer whales segment combines veiled environmental commentary with a satirical side-swipe at right-on hipsterism and misplaced activism. The latter is the more heavy-handed, and is played mainly for laughs, but the former underlies this humour and connects back to the seagull’s lonely fatalism.

After the killer whales face the consequences of their dietary choices, we dive deeper into the sea for the next sequence. This is signalled by a dip in the lighting – the use of lighting is an effective aspect of the show (in the absence of backdrops and scenery, the lighting is the device by which the audience is taken underwater). The second segment features two blind jellyfish (Richards and Bonney again) and a manipulative turtle (played by Allen). This section of Underwater makes more use of physical comedy and absurdist dialogue, with the two jellyfish banging into one another – and the audience, and the furniture – with surprising force. The more manic tone of this middle section is pronounced – and ambitious, given the confines of The Whiskey Jar’s basement space!

As mentioned, the stage area of Underwater is strewn with bits of rubbish and discarded plastic. The significance of this should be pretty clear in a show that bills itself as facing ‘the environmental apocalypse’. What’s interesting about this idiosyncratic set décor though is that the actors can’t (or don’t) attempt to avoid it. The rubbish audibly swishes around their feet as they move on the stage, tangling and constantly threatening to trip them up. It isn’t mentioned at all in the first two segments, which is a nice touch. The disruptive ubiquity of plastic is an apt background noise to what we’re seeing.

Underwater’s three actors each portray three different creatures, and I have to admit I did have a favourite performance from each. Allen is great as a mournful seagull, intoning his depressive monologue about sardines with a whimsical gravitas. I also enjoyed Richards’s hipster killer whale; both his physical movements and self-righteous tone were spot on (as was his pronunciation of the name ‘Bianca’). For me, Bonney really shone as a slightly bonkers but rather charming jellyfish, intent on building an aquarium and addressing (with no clarity of thought whatsoever) political imbalances of power.

As for the final sequence of the play – when the lights finally drop down to darkness and we go to the bottom of the sea – well… you’ll have to watch it for yourself to find out where it all ends!

Underwater is on at The Whiskey Jar on Tuesday 2nd and Wednesday 3rd of July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Gare du Nord have two other productions on this year’s festival programme: When Liam Met Emmeline in Manchester and The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind. And I’ll be reviewing one of these later in the month.

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