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Published on Thursday, 16 May 2013

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3 stars

The Nightingale (venue website)
14-15 May, 9:00pm-10:00pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Warning: Contains strong language.
 World Premiere.
 Suitable for age 16+ only.

The Holocene, as the programme thoughtfully informs me, is a geological epoch which began around 12,000 years ago. But this play’s really about the last 28 years: about the life of performer David Sheppeard, as expressed through the study of rocks, Gone With The Wind, and volcanoes. You might think that sounds odd, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s rather charming too. Read on.

There are two main strands to Sheppeard’s apparently-autobiographical narrative.  One’s a sweetly affirming story, about how a loving relationship – in this case with his mother – can find expression through the most unusual of passions.  The other is sharper and darker, contrasting what Sheppeard presents as his own lack of courage with the devil-may-care antics of French volcanologists, Maurice and Katia Krafft.  (Maurice, incidentally, may be the only person in the history of human society ever to have uttered the phrase “luckily, there was an enormous explosion”.)

It’s a strange-sounding mix, but on balance, it works.  There were a few elements I never quite got to grips with – the chronology always seemed slightly confused – but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the links between the storylines prove solid enough to bind them.  Sheppeard develops a trusting rapport by some direct interaction with the audience, and he conveys a sense of his younger self with particular aplomb.  I fear I may have embarrassed myself with my puppy-dog desire to inspect his childhood rock collection.

There were times when the delivery lacked a little fluency, but there were also some beautifully-crafted moments, subtly calling back to earlier themes.  I particularly admired the treatment of a period of mental illness, which used humour to normalise the topic yet also included some delicate symbolism of an unhealthily obsessive mind.  Video segments were well-chosen and genuinely integrated into the narrative, and I liked the trail of home-made props Sheppeard laid across the stage – for all that his handling of them involved some first-night fumbles.

But this is how the play ends: not with a bang, but a whimper.  As it happens, I already knew what fate awaited the intrepid Maurice and Katia, but if I hadn’t I’m not sure I’d quite have grasped it from their short wrap-up video.  And Sheppeard’s personal story lost some focus from the moment he staged his own “little explosion”; it all needs to be tied up rather more neatly, because this is theatre, and we expect it to be tidier than real life.

In the final analysis, there’s an unfinished feel to a lot of this work, but what’s there is both promising and enjoyable.  It hasn’t quite erupted yet, but it’s bubbling away – worth seeing now, and certainly worth watching for the future.

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