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The Seagull Effect
Published on Tuesday, 16 August 2011

4 stars

Zoo Roxy (venue website)
Dance and Physical Theatre
5-15, 17-22, 24-27 Aug, 4:20pm-5:20pm
Reviewed by Sarah Hill

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

Last year, Total Theatre Award nominees Idle Motion stormed the Fringe with their brilliant piece The Vanishing Horizon. It’s great to see the talent of an emerging company so well recognised, particularly when they devise their own work, and this year they return with a hotly-awaited new production that looks to be selling out fast. For fans of the company’s trademark visual aesthetic, The Seagull Effect won’t disappoint. It has all the inventive ingenuity and charm of last year’s offering, as well as a fresh, thought-provoking concept – yet I couldn’t help but feel something was missing.

Diving backwards through the last 20 years, The Seagull Effect lands on a night in 1987 which saw a freak hurricane wreak havoc across England in the space of six hours. The production stylistically interprets the knock-on effects of this improbable event, weaving together eye-witness accounts and fictional narratives. From the wreckage, two stories emerge: that of an individual, doubling up as narrator, and the tale of two ex-lovers stranded together for the night. One of the strengths of the piece is its ability to create the impression that these stories form part of a greater picture, an endless network of relationships in a constant state of flux. Through a collage of highly inventive, hands-on audio-visual motifs – a whirl-wind of dynamic storytelling, movement and projection – the storm becomes a metaphor for how unstable our reality truly is.

The overall concept here is strong, and delivers a thoroughly absorbing and original take on the unpredictability of human life. It doesn’t matter whether you’re familiar with the specifics of the hurricane or not, for its message – that our understanding of life is the result of an infinite array of chance occurrences – is universal and accessible. Grace Chapman does well as the disarming narrator in appealing to the audience’s imagination, and her presence provides an insightful and thought-provoking commentary to the events played out onstage. However, the narrative focus placed on the other two characters, though necessarily simplistic in order to balance the pacing, lacked the spark and interest that it should have delivered in abundance: for a piece that addresses the chaotic unpredictability of existence, this half of the plot-line felt, unfortunately, somewhat predictable.

The real selling point of this production is its visual ingenuity, in particular a consistently clever and witty handling of ordinary objects. Throughout, props lining the perimeter of the stage come to life in all sorts of delightfully unexpected ways, and there are many moments of real beauty. Often, the effect is fleeting and ephemeral: images are formed in an instant, and vanish just as quickly. I can certainly appreciate how this complements the running theme of instability, yet there are many visual motifs that were so powerful, I was left wanting more. A sensitive use of puppetry, lasting only seconds, felt all too brief, as did the use of shadow play and some spectacular lighting effects.

Part of the brilliance and popularity of Idle Motion is in their effortless handling of these vignettes. But narratively speaking, the piece wasn’t as strong as I’d have hoped, and for this very reason – for me, it appeared to be structured as a series of moments that, beautiful in themselves, didn’t quite hold together as one, single unit. What Idle Motion do well they do exceptionally well; yet somehow the overall experience of The Seagull Effect left me feeling oddly frustrated. Stylistically speaking, this is highly playful theatre and yet ironically, for me it lacked the spontaneity of genuine play.

The wonderful choreography and smooth transitions, all so thoroughly considered, resulted in rather restrained performances. I desperately wanted the performers to let go a bit; to look as though they were enjoying themselves more. I say this with a heavy heart, for I very much admire this company and their commitment to theatre’s visual potential – something which is, unfortunately, far too often overlooked and de-valued – but The Seagull Effect failed to meet my high expectations. Still, it is certainly an ambitious and commendable piece of theatre worth taking note of, as are Idle Motion themselves. Watch this space.

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