The sun has not yet set, but the 2014 season of Young and Hungry’s Festival of New Theatre is already due to start at The Basement, though my theatre companion is running late. Luckily, the vibe is friendly and relaxed, and we get to our seats well before the show starts with no fuss.
First up is Ralph McCubbin-Howell’s Second Afterlife, directed by Leon Wadham, where main character Dan (Jackson Bliss-McCauley) attempts to delete his facebook. How hard could it be? Guided, fittingly, by The Guide (Anthony Crum) a kind of Kiwi Morpheus in navy blue, Dan must do battle with his previous internet personae to get his Real Life back. Think The Wizard of Oz by way of Scott Pilgrim. It might have been trying to say something bigger about the distinction between social media and just being social, but the sheer fun of the show takes over and by the end we’re laughing at our own stupid net habits just as much as those of our hero.
Jackson Bliss-McCauley is the affably self-centred Dan, a teenage everyman for the digital age. The rest of the hilarious, committed cast all do double-duty - first as his highschool friends, and then the denizens of the internet hell Dan wanders into. A particular highlight is the parade of all-too-familiar viral videos he encounters as he strays into YouTube.
The use of high school flashbacks allow us to discover more about the characters we met ever-so briefly in the opening scene - a house party with a beautifully trashy set that makes way for the literal trashcans and rubbish sacks of the bowels of the internet. Ravi Gurunathan is loveable loser Simon; be sure to watch him closely for some hysterical high five fails. Jessica Stubbing gets the best one-liners as the hypocritical rich-girl Sadie, and totally owns her fiery character change. Katie Longbottom has a great energy as nominal love interest Bea, and handles a surprisingly satisfying concluding scene with touching simplicity.
The fights, choreographed by Michael Hurst, are an entertaining comic book spectacle; realistically executed, though outrageous enough to remind us it’s all for show. Things do become touch-and-go as the fights become more climactic and there’s 5+ people jousting with broomsticks and frying pans with the audience tightly squeezed into the small Basement space, sometimes inches away from the choreography.
The soundtrack has an 80s feel and accompanies the action well, though sound levels were occasionally overpowering. The costumes, from cool urban threads, to school uniforms, and World of Warcraft battle-garb with level 5 shoulders (giving me Dragonlore flashbacks) all managed a cohesive yet eclectic look, matching the style of the show well. The boiler suits for the inner internet workers were nice, with Crum’s Guide given the interesting addition of a bathrobe for an over-coat.
Up next, Katy Maudlin takes on Dan Bain’s Uncle Minotaur. Bullied at school, Greta (Tomasin Fisher-Johnson) opts for laser eye surgery from a strange doctor (Lutz Hamm on opening night, boldly filling in for a sick Holly Hudson), but things go wrong and dreams and reality begin to blur.
We walk in to a pleasant, otherworldly musical welcome from the cast. They segue into an unnerving medical soundscape that underscores the ghoulish opening scene, supported by the versatile Adam Ogle on foley and musical accompaniment. Credit is due to Ogle for the rich tapestry of sound he weaves throughout the piece. This fluid aural backdrop matches the style of performance well: puppetry is integrated with dynamic ease- handbags become shark-monkey hybrids, a bathtap becomes a seagull, an egg becomes a spider. They are truly moments of theatrical magic that are only slightly undercut as they are dwarfed and a little cluttered by the room. It’s a brave effort to corral such an expansive world into a small space, and it pays off.
Maudlin isn’t afraid for her cast to interact with the audience, which is an effective decision that draws us in at key moments. Mohammed Hassan, as The Hobo, is at his dishevelled, charismatic best when in storyteller mode, talking and singing directly to us (even putting a newspaper hat on my head as he leaves one scene) but this relationship he develops with us is at the cost of developing his connection with Greta which becomes important and I felt was lost as the play develops. The lupine, circling, predatory Mean Girls, led by Alpha-Bitch Serena (Ruby Love) are definitely my favourite characters of the night. Love is supported by Geneva Norman and Nisha Odedra, and all three have a wonderful sustained characterisation, giving audience members those awful half-compliments that bring on insecurity in waves, which extends into a thrilling physicalisation of intention as they become like a nasty pack of wolves – two cornering Greta as one crawls towards her on the edges of the bathtub which is the set’s central piece. The trio have tight chorus work that will only get tighter as the season progresses, and I certainly hope I get a chance to return to the show – if only to see what they develop over time.
Lutz Hamm as the Minotaur, resplendent in furry pants, a horned helmet, and little else, finds an effective balance between Bain’s poetic language at its most pseudo-classical, and nicely understated throwaway jokes. His grandiosity and power combined with his lapses into normalcy makes him a compelling enigma. Fisher-Johnson handles Greta adeptly, sustaining our interest in a character that might have become tiresome right up until the play’s eye-popping final moments. She evokes pathos from the character without any melodramatics. Supported by new-boy Hamish (a beautifully honest performance from Mataara Stokes) the two weave a delicate relatonship.
The plot, mixing Greek mythic tradition with contemporary stylings, is served well by Maudlin’s unmistakeable directorial flair, but as the play reached its end things became unclear, and many audience left unsure what the pieces of the puzzle added up to. I was beginning to fall in love with the world Maudlin & Co. had built, and I left wanting to see more. A longer piece definitely wouldn’t have felt like overindulgence – both plays only run at around an hour each.
The night runs to a very similar structure as last year’s festival – the zany, irreverent Second Afterlife is followed by the deeper, more poetic Uncle Minotaur, and for a good reason. The balance works well, making for a satisfying double bill. This, coupled with the retro gaming stations in the bar outside (seriously, can every theatre please have these?) make for an engaging, well-rounded night of young people making some great theatre.
Young and Hungry runs their double bill until this Saturday. Get your tickets here.