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Theatre Review: Boat (Theatre N16, London)

boat All at sea. Pia Laborde Noguez in 'Boat'. Photograph: Courtesy of Shawn Soh.
boat

All at sea. Pia Laborde Noguez in ‘Boat’. Photograph: Courtesy of Shawn Soh.

In A Nutshell

A devastating and often heartbreaking play about human displacement, Boat is a truly crippling and shocking piece that isn’t at all what it seems.

Overview

A set of twins fleeing their country are adrift on a small boat in the middle of the ocean. One of them has been asleep for a very long time. The other converses with their only friends: a turtle and a seagull.

Writing

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s play was never going to be a laugh a minute, starting straight off with a dire look at refugeeism. But what Hargrave manages to do in Boat is find a simple innocence and child-like charm to the predicament. There’s something very playful about the main character talking to two animal confidants, despite the desperation of their situation. Through this, Boat looks at some tender shoals of youthful philosophy whilst simultaneously finding beautiful and heartbreaking slants on refugeeism that are more than powerful. Mix into this looming mental health issues, and the result is a brutal yet charmingly frank look at life at those willing to survive. It’s difficult not to be moved by several moments here, as playtime and imagination create an uneasy yet emotive reflection on one of the biggest socio-political issues of our time.

But Boat is not at all what it appears. Without giving too much away, the set-up of a set of twins being literally all at sea isn’t at all what you’re made to think it is. Boat’s given scenario soon dissipates to reveal something more sinister but equally as grave, looking at a different type of human displacement that perhaps we’ve forgotten. When the veil is lifted, Boat becomes a truly shocking and uncomfortable play. It’s an unapologetic putsch that throws light onto something that shouldn’t be ignored.

Yet the writing isn’t perfect. You’ll end up with a lot of questions at the end of Boat about just how feasible the whole scenario is as there’s plenty of mechanics that confuse and don’t add up. Some of the abstracts are a bit obtuse, too, and if you don’t have that ‘eureka’ moment you could find yourself quite adrift and bewildered at what Boat eventually becomes. But none the less, providing you ‘click’, Hargrave’s inconsistencies far from lessen the impact of Boat, and ultimately the finished product is writing at its most imaginative, intelligent, and brutal.

boat

It came from the deep. Matthew Coulton as Turtle in ‘Boat’. Photograph: Courtesy of Shawn Soh.

Direction & Production

Stuck in a small upper room at the top of Balham’s The Bedford, it’s incredibly impressive what production company PIGDOG have done with a space that is pretty much the size and layout of a large living room. But this by no means deters the creativity of the team, who have created a simple yet super effective set-up that easily tours. Design Shawn Soh’s thrust layout doesn’t require much space and can easily squeeze an audience around it, figuratively putting their noses up against the glass and disallowing them any escape or escapism. The stage – a collection of cheap furniture, re-purposed pallets, and plastic sheeting – might look incredibly amateur at first, but it’s all a very meticulous affair to bring out themes of rubbish that run deep within Boat, and like Hargrave’s writing the set is also a two-faced beast: whilst it compliments the superficial themes it’s also a cleverly cruel harbinger of what Boat is actually about. Soh’s set also includes some adventurous use of shadows and physically playing with projection to create surreal images, complimented by Tom Burgess’ harsh washes and eerie blues. But it’s Jethro Cooke’s live sound that forms an integral cornerstone of Boat, with ethereal and imaginative manipulation of live and interactive sound from both cast and audience. It creates a very detached and strange atmosphere that really feeds into Boat’s false face as well as pouring aural colour into the room.

Element’s of Max Barton’s direction might seem like a little jagged at first. Scenes are rudimentary linked by a narrator reading out chapter titles, and there are breaks in the pace where characters directly interact with the sound system. It’s fractured and stilted, but then, that’s the point. Barton creates a broken flow that consistently shatters any illusions or lets the audience get too comfortable with what’s going on. But it also feeds into the innocent sense of tilted play that so awkwardly sits on top of Hargrave’s sinister exploration. Furthermore, Barton puts in some amazing pieces of abstract imagery, specifically a monstrous use of clay to represent certain themes and happenings, that stick and leave a harrowing impression.

boat

Gemini or Aquarius? Pia Laborde Noguez and Cristina Catalina. Photograph: Courtesy of Shawn Soh.

Cast

Boat is blessed with an outstanding cast: a quintessential quartet of extraordinary actors. Pia Laborde Noguez as the more naive twin finds an innocent oblivion that sweeps you off your feet, especially against her sister’s, more world-wise demeanor, played tenderly and lovingly by Cristina Catalina. Catalina especially finds a disruptive cheer in facing the demise set by her own demons that is soul-crunchingly moving. Matthew Coulton as Turtle is sublimely jolly, swimming about in the sea of clear plastic, flapping about with sheer disarming charm. Whilst Gabriele Lombardo as Gull gives a brilliantly physical performance, leaping from bits of furniture to bits of furniture with precise bird-like ticks and mannerisms, as if they were something avian in a past life.

Verdict

Boat is probably the most demanding and urgent piece of theatre you’ll see this year, utterly knocking the wind out of your sails. Don’t let this ship cast-off without you.

Boat plays at Theatre N16, London, SW12 9HD, until 5 November 2015. Tickets are £14 (concessions available). To book, visit www.theatren16.co.uk.

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