Review: Mad Meg, Blue Elephant Theatre

Mad Meg is a fine piece bringing together music and dance to tell a simple but very memorable tale, as the finale to the Blue Elephant Theatre’s ELEFEET Dance Festival. The piece is devised and performed by Marianne Tuckman and Phoebe Ophelia Douthwaite of new company MAZPOD. Musical arrangement is by Laurence Marshall, who also provides the pre-show entertainment in the bar as a cheery one-man-band, setting the tone for the show to come. This work is produced from the unique convergence of Tuckman and Douthwaite’s interests: traditional storytelling mediums; folk song and dance, and contemporary dance. It is this which gives the piece and its central character such a distinctive quality.

Mad Meg tells the simple story of Meg (“Just Meg!”); a young woman who has odd habits, is a little unattractive, and is quite vulnerable. As the text is compiled using fragments of existing tales and songs, the story at hand is one that feels already familiar and simultaneously brand new. The tale of Meg’s estrangement from society and her eventual marriage is represented through multiple character’s perspectives. These are perspectives taken on by Meg, who is played by both performers at the same time – dressed and styled in the same way. Throughout the piece, they move between both playing Meg in a synchronized and also in a confrontational fashion. The unity of the story is upheld by folk-like storytelling devices, which use repeated phrases and gestures to keep the story grounded, and derives its rhythm from the musical accompaniment.

The musical arrangement by Marshall on accordion effectively maintains the sweetly melancholic tone of the piece, and merges seamlessly with the singing, speaking and movement. His presence on the stage, sat at a bar table with a beer, emphasises the simplicity of the show and its traditional folk influences – this is a piece that would also be at home outside of a theatre, set somewhere much more informal. Certain bawdier moments of the show are hilariously funny, and offer a modern interpretation of the ‘mad woman’ character trope as one with exasperating sexual frustration. Tuckman and Douthwaite both bring different comic gestures to the character of Meg which are lewd and silly, but are never purely gestural. It is very clear to see how much thought was put into the character of Meg during the devising process – Mad Meg is a show which is light and comedic, but also sincere and touching.

Douthwaite is a strong comic actor, whose facial expressions bring constant variation to the piece. Tuckman excels as a storyteller, whose control of the narrative is integral to the effectiveness of the show as a whole. Though the variation in the styles of dancing is impressive, the show could have contained more sequences of contemporary dance to balance the more literal storytelling. The section of dance depicting Meg’s romantic longing is very strong, and I could have watched much, much more of it. It is exciting to see a strong performance by two young female performers with such a clear dramatic style, and I hope to see more of their work in the future.

Mad Meg played at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell until the 19th November.