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Theatre Review: Lovesong of the Electric Bear (Above the Arts Thetare, London)

electric bear Bear necessities. Ian Hallard (left) and Bryan Pilkington (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.
electric bear

Bear necessities. Ian Hallard (left) and Bryan Pilkington (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

In A Nutshell

Blissfully bonkers, Lovesong of the Electric Bear is an outstanding epitaph celebrating Alan Turing, abound with imagination and admiration.

Overview

Alan Turing is about to commit suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide. But his childhood teddy bear, Porgy, doesn’t want to let him do this, so he takes him on a magical trip through his childhood and life’s achievements to try and convince him otherwise.

Writing

If the synopsis of Lovesong of the Electric Bear sounds absolutely mad, it’s because it is. The whole venture is a little juvenile and most definitely surreal, so you would certainly forgiven for thinking that such an approach to the life of Turing would be insincere, especially as there’s still a lot of anger and pain about how he was criminalised and “treated” for being gay, leading to his eventual suicide. But for all Lovesong of the Electric Bear’s oddness, the result is actually a robust and sensitive celebration of one of Britain’s greatest minds that finds a charm and an appreciation among its mad-cap pantomime.

electric bear

Being a genius is such a drag. Ian Hallard (left) and William Hartley (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

The challenge writer Snoo Wilson is faced with, like with any biography play, is how to produce something that isn’t too dry, or drift towards the other pole of being an over-emotional portrait. Wilson’s answer is Lovesong of the Electric Bear: a highly flamboyant and child-like romp through the less well-known and more matter-of-fact episodes, meaning your charmed by its wierdness you not bored by the less dramatic material. But Wilson also knows when to hold back on the device of a larger than life magical bear whizzing Turing’s life before his very eyes. There are still plenty of times where more serious moments are allowed to sink in and have gravitas, as these are the demand to be, particularly concerning his friendships and relationships he has along the way. But Wilson never lets the bitterness over Turing’s fate command Lovesong of the Electric Bear, giving an audience a level, if not goofy, opportunity to really paw over his achievements without it being clouded with emotion. Elsewhere, there’s fun little details like every scene being choc full of innuendos, although you ironically hardly notice them as they’re delivered so straight-laced. Then there’s a playful theme and device of ancient gods that ties in nicely to how Wilson drives and frames the biographic narrative, which adds an interesting and exuberant take to the plot.

The only problem with Lovesong of the Electric Bear is that it does it’s difficult to know how to react at something so wacky yet simultaneously so reverend: there’s very little out there like Lovesong of the Electric Bear, so there’s no precedence on how it should be approached. Furthermore, there are points where it does go off the rails a little and becomes a touch confusing, though thankfully never garbling the biographical element of Lovesong of the Electric Bear. But otherwise, you really can’t hold it against Wilson for doing something completely original, thoroughly entertaining, and touching and respectful despite being incredibly left-field.

Electric Bear

Onyer bike! The cast of ‘Lovesong of the Electric Bear’. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Direction & Production

After it’s acclaimed run at The Hope Theatre, The Hope Theatre and Orange Dog’s production now transfers to Above the Arts Theatre. Designer Zoe Hurwitz turns the space into a small black box with a thrust performance area, with code workings-out chalked onto the cloth covered walls, and decorated with tangles of colourful wires and tape. It’s like being inside Turing’s mind and his beloved computers all at once. But what’s great about Hurwitz’s design is that not only does it capture the playful essence of Wilson’s text, there’s a few little surprises using things like filament lightbulbs behind the black fabric that create some really whimsical effects. Tom Kitney’s lighting compliments the feel of wonder and discovery with warmth, colour, and a lot of interesting work with shadows and back-lighting, despite the cosiness of the space and added challenge of the thrust set-up.

Matthew Parker’s direction for Lovesong of the Electric Bear really captures a fun and unstoppable energy through Wilson’s dizzying narrative setting, but always feels controlled. Even if the text goes a bit pear-shaped, the energy and direction never does. Parker pushes the moments that are off-kilter, with pantomime fervor and plenty of wacky physical theatre, and holds back on tender or dramatic/melodramatic moments. It really helps settle you into a piece that’s already odd enough to completely comprehend, by ensuring the direction never jars against the text or the audiences’ endeavour to make sense of Lovesong of the Electric Bear.

Cast

electric bear

Mix tape. Ian Hallard as Alan Turing in ‘Lovesong of the Electric Bear’. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

The cats for Lovesong of the Electric Bear are as spunky and funky as the text itself. At the epicentre of it all, Ian Hallard gives an incredibly touching portrait of Alan Turing. For all the idolism and starry-eyed admiration people have for Turing, Hallard portrays him as a warm and human character. You almost forget the monoliths of Turing’s greatness through Hallard’s performance, because at Hallard’s hand Turing becomes such a natural person, despite his latent brilliance, really connecting you to such a tragically fated yet brilliant person.

Stealing the show is Bryan Pilkington as Porgy. If you ever wanted to know what an animated teddy bear would act, sound, and behave, then Pilkington should be your fist point of reference. For all the grandiose campiness and silliness Pilkington puts into playing Porgy, there are also myriad little details that really complete Porgy’s presence, such as the little silence claps and “yays” in the background when something goes Progy’s way. It’s a cuddly and bounding performance that’s as loveable as it is unhinged, and complete in its playful imagination and execution.

Other noteworthy cast include William Hartley who demontrates a keen versatility playing characters from Winston Churchill and Turing’s dad, to school bullies, veteran code-breakers, and New York drag queens. Hartley effortlessly clicks into each character seamlessly and you almost forget the long list of personalities are all command by just Hartley himself.

Verdict

Dizzy and electric, Lovesong of the Electric Bear is a spark of genius that does the life and works of Alan Turing an unexpected justice, even though the pain of his fate is still sore.

Lovesong of the Electric Bear plays at Above the Arts Thetare, WC2H 7JB, until 21 November 2015. Tickets are £18 (concessions available). To book, visit https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk.

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