Hailing from Bristol, FellSwoop is one theatre company whose fringe and touring theatre shows turn heads every year, and their ever-growing reputation is incredibly well-deserved. Their most recent fringe offering, Ablutions, is a great example of how innovative, original and enchanting theatre can be.
Based on the novel of the same name by Patrick DeWitt, the show follows the life of a run-down bartender spending his days in a California dive-bar, not knowing where he is going or what he wants. The character’s stumbling through his life’s adversities and adventures provides a simple and powerful narrative basis for the production. Between the bar, his home life and a road trip of drug-fuelled hallucinations and unhappy terrain, we see one man sent to the edge of his sanity and back again.
The performance makes great use of both mime and music to create the settings and sights of the narrative, both to great effect. The various locations visited by the unhinged protagonist are created seamlessly for the audience by the cast, with the excessive heights of drink and drugs conjured almost effortlessly using physical quirks and mime. The whole play is underscored with Americana folk and blues music, courtesy of the ensemble and musical director Ben Osborn. The deftly composed and perfectly performed scoring creates a huge range of atmospheric backdrops for the production, framing the action and further beckoning the audience deeper into the murky and darkly tragic world they have created.
Eoin Slattery gives a great performance as the unnamed protagonist, with his character’s deterioration steady and well-observed, allowing the audience into his innermost thoughts, feeling and anxieties with complete honesty. While this character could easily become monotonous, Slattery’s portrayal is at once entertaining and heartbreaking, with the soaring storytelling elements of the show painting bright and vivid landscapes for the audience with wonderful ease.
Fiona Mikel and Harry Humberstone, as well as providing part of the musical accompaniment, also make up the rest of the cast, multi-roling as a series of supporting roles throughout the production. Every role brought to the stage is entirely different and entirely recognisable, showing a true talent within both of these performers. Humberstone’s comic turns as the various patrons and co-workers of the bar, as well as those of gas stations and health food stores along the way, cement the dark comedy of the production, with Mikel’s characters jumping to life every moment they are on stage. Her performance as the protagonist’s wife is touching, as it ought to be, while not over-done.
A show that is undeniably deserving of the accolades it has collected so far, Ablutions is a dark comedy with heart, wonderfully adapted, observed and performed, and well worth seeing.
Ablutions is playing at Soho Theatre until 22 February and on tour throughout the UK until April. For more information and tickets, see the FellSwoop website.