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Published on Saturday, 10 August 2013

3 stars

Zoo (venue website)
2-17 Aug, 9:30pm-10:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

When was the last time a news story moved you to tears? For me it was back in 2010, when thirty-three men were dragged back to daylight from the depths of a Chilean mine. A billion people watched, so they say, and this ambitious piece of theatre from the Bristol-based Wardrobe Ensemble tracks backwards and forwards from that moment – rewinding to the point when the mine collapsed and the men were entombed, and spooling onward to life after their dramatic release.

It starts, cleverly, with a moment of unity, sharing the audience’s own memories of the events of that day.  And then, we’re straight into a youthful, physical style of theatre, which combines eye-catching movement sequences with dialogue and occasionally song.  The cast flick between roles continually, donning boilersuits to play the miners then rolling them down to pick up the supporting roles.  I especially appreciated the creepily controlling psychologist, who acted as the miners’ only connection to the outside world – and if you think that the sudden appearance of a certain 1960’s superstar is a little far-fetched, reserve your judgement on that point until you’ve seen the end.

There were a few technical glitches on the night I attended, but I saw enough to convince myself that the Wardrobe Ensemble have built a distinctive visual style.  Some dimly-lit, close-up live video captures a sense of the emptiness and isolation to be found so far underground, and it’s complemented by a delicately echoing soundscape, effective and restrained.  The progress of the rescue is tracked using a shaft of light probing through a diagram, and the emergence of the miners’ first scribbled note is a particularly well-thought-through moment, linking a relatively abstract sequence projected on the screen with an outburst of excitement on the stage.

But the whole thing doesn’t quite come together.  It’s just too big a story to tackle in its entirety, and the script never commits to studying any single thought.  Instead, it gives us a little bit of everything – some biography, some psychology, some humour and some romance – and it hops about in both space and time, from the mine to the surface to the UK and beyond.  For me, the most memorable and touching scenes weren’t set underground in Chile, but in an anonymous flat somewhere in Britain: they brought it all back to a scale a Fringe show can tackle, and I found myself wistfully regretting that they hadn’t spent the whole hour like that, telling us the stories of ordinary people watching the news on TV.

33 is also a more nuanced play than the Wardrobe Ensemble’s previous work, Riot, with a finer balance between action and introspection.  That’s a sign of maturity of course, but I still feel that something distinctive has been lost – the sense of relentless physicality, of a work that surged ahead while its audience clung on for the ride.  So 33 wasn’t quite the piece I was hoping for; but expectations are dangerous things.  I did enjoy the play for its visual set-pieces, and for its moments of deadpan humour.  And most of all, I enjoyed the fleeting reminder of that one precious night – when just for a moment, miracles seemed possible, and a billion people watched and smiled.

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