Drifters is the first UK production from Strange Arrangements, a theatre company set up in Australia in 1996 and now based in Winchester. Drifters explores the effect the immediate geographical environment has on the human being, and the curiosity of the around-the-world voyager. The audience sees the individual traveller alienated and alone in unknown territory with the landscape continually shifting, and the threat of the ‘other’ unknowable monster ever present. This somewhat surreal hour and a quarter is inspired by the fantastical diaries of the fourteenth century independent traveller, Sir John Mandeville.
The visuals created are aesthetically pleasing to a hypnotic extent. The performers and lighting designer Sebastine Brewer make the audience feel like they have been plunged into Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Halogen lanterns are swung above the audience’s heads, and LED light-dots are moved around like sparklers on bonfire night to give the illusion that the dots are dancing in mid air. The visual effect this gives is so stunning that there is a danger of being drawn to the production as a moth is to strip lighting, and to forget about the journey that the performers are trying to take you on.
In its first UK developmental residency with Little Angel’s INCUBATE, Strange Arrangements has worked hard to create some intelligent, clear storytelling methods. Sue Dacre’s puppets are used to great effect: notably impressive is the use of an articulated tube to create a body that could be fitted with several detachable heads, to create a range of creatures. Simple backdrops of netting, white sheets and brown paper were hung up and torn aside to represent several different landscapes, shifting the audience from the outback to underground to underwater.
It is therefore irritating that the weakness in a production that visually has so much storytelling potential was a lack of story. The company of Nigel Luck, Hannah Timms and Ivan Hall deliver energised performances (Hall’s clownish facial expressions are a highlight), but there was little development behind their relationship as a trio of voyagers. If the narrative had been more developed, I would have walked out of Drifters with the same feeling of satisfaction that comes with seeing a live art or dance show, and not just the blinding high of a firework display.
As this is Strange Arrangements’ first UK show, it is not surprising that it wanted to showcase as many of its ideas as possible, and Drifters certainly offers a varied feast for the senses. However, I felt that it would have been beneficial to see one or two of the ideas they were more confident with developed beyond just a three-minute snapshot. Although this scattergun style remains faithful to the observations of John Mandeville, it left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied.
The theatrical style of Strange Arrangements is promisingly unique, and it has an extremely broad audience base, as its visual work speaks to all ages and uses no dialogue, so language is no barrier. However, I think that this company would benefit from having a narrative to give it a focus. There were elements of the performance that were strongly reminiscent of The Tempest – it would be fantastic to see an established story told through such a fresh and exciting visual medium.
Drifters played at the Little Angel Theatre until 24 March For more information, see the Little Angel Theatre website.