Baby ain’t childsplay. Whilst it’s a discombobulating look at what is theatre, it’s more likely to leave you confused than challenged.
Doppelgangster and MKA Theatre are going to perform to you, Baby: the daring story of a crashed flight and polar bears.
Funnily, after commenting that Underground last week at the Vault Festival was surprisingly standard, straight afterwards I got treated to Baby which sits at the polar end of the scale. Dr Tom Payne of Doppelgangster and Tobias Manderson-Galvin of MKA Theatre put together 75 minutes of brain-frying absurdism, exploring theatre through the frayed attempt at exploring what would otherwise be a straightforward narrative.
The story about the German man trying to break the record for flying over the arctic in a homemade plane, and having to fight off a polar bear whilst awaiting rescue, is not what you really get. Payne and Manderson-Galvin use it as a means for exploding the idea of theatre and piecing it back together into some frantic collage of debris. “Deep meanings” are exaggerated to the point of ridiculous, and nothing at all makes sense in the one hour and 15 minutes Baby goes on for.
But even though Baby is utterly maddening, it’s intelligent none the less. The downed-plane and polar bear story gets expanded and interrupted by shambling attempts at putting on a play that are actually ways for Payne and Maderson-Galvin to really push the boundaries of a theatre show and hand us our previous perceptions back to us on a wonky silver platter. To help build the fractious and insane chaos that hopes to achieve this, the entire script is played back to both Payne and Manderson-Galvin via digital recorders, to which they recite the text as they hear it: a technique used mostly for verbatim plays. This adds a disconnection between them and the play, them and the audience, and them and themselves, especially as things are often out of sync. This approach, coupled with the super-thick absurdism of the text, is likely to leave even the most seasoned Ionesco fan a little boggled, sledge-hammers away any remnant that this might be a “normal” show. Although enragingly nonsensical at times, Baby still manages to keep you fully engaged and wondering, rather than just dismissing it as trash, with bouts of comic irony as well as some amusing passages of nonsense, crazily delivered by Payne and Manderson-Galvin.
But the result is that perhaps Baby is too oblique and/or sarcastic for its own good as you just try to figure out what on earth is going on. What is it they’re trying to say? How is it relevant? Are the lighting cues really fucked or is it all part of the meticulous illusion? Baby is probably a bit too heavy-handed and dizzying that you don’t quite feel satisfied and fulfilled, let alone have the slightest clue about what just happened. Baby isn’t “entertaining”, but that isn’t the point. But then again, for something aiming for a possible higher deconstruction of theatre, the dissatisfaction it creates isn’t terribly effective, especially if the audience get so pummeled that they can’t quite grasp what they’re supposed to anyway. Though I may have missed or confused the point entirely, so who knows.
You can’t help but get the impression this gung-ho lambaste of theatre, with a wink and several punches to the head, is really very smart and precisely constructed, and that’s what keeps you intrigued and hooked even though its uncomfortable watching. It’s just frustrating that you leave unsure of what you were supposed to have learnt, or even if there was a lesson there in the first place! But you can say you were there and witnessed something quite “special”.
Production & Direction
The very minimal stage is lit by some runaway lighting, and cluttered with several props, all of which serve to enhance the madness. Everything is very rudimentary leaving the focus to be on Payne and Manderson-Galvin and how they rattle through the bewildering script whilst also giving the production a ramshackle sheen.
But the most impressive thing is just how much Payne and Manderson-Galvin push the pace. Although Baby’s pacing is somewhat dictated by what the digital recorders spout out and when, the entire show moves at a breathless sprint that keeps you punch-drunk. Any down time in Baby’s energy is for awkward moments that are slow enough to make you feel the thorny frustration of those around you (especially those who really couldn’t get on board with Baby), but not so long that it completely breaks your constitution and patience.
Payne and Manderson-Galvin give two excellent performances. Payne is exquisitely hyperactive and jittery, putting on a brilliantly twitchy facial performance if anything else that is an absolute joy to watch, even if you’re not quite finding yourself involved in the material. This is complemented by Manderson-Galvin’s swaggering twisted confidence and devil-may-care attitude, who’s cocky presence is charismatic even if a little bullying. The two work with and against each other at all points, and even if you don’t know what they’re doing, they certainly do, knowing exactly how to build a dynamic that gets you to respond how they want to, even if you’re not quite getting it.
A supreme WTF of a show, but be aware that Baby will probably bewilder more than bedazzle.
Baby plays at the Vault Festival, London, SE1 7NN, until 7 February. Tickets are £8. To book, visit www.vaultfestival.com.