“I’m dead, you see, so I’m not in this bit. I mean, I’m not dead, obviously, but…”
And so goes much of Forced Entertainment’s new show. It does not so much break the fourth wall as ignore it completely. The audience is very much present in the room; we are directly addressed, we are told stories, and we are apologised to for “fuck ups” – which are presumably scripted. I say presumably, because much of the show is designed to disorientate, to make you question expectations and ideas about the role of the audience, and the role of the actor. Each actor is referred to by their real name throughout. With the aid of one microphone, they take it in turns to tell us a story.
Well, they take it turns to begin a story, before the mic is snatched away and they interrupted. The stories intermingle and cross over, but are never quite resolved for the most part. While I am (fairly) sure that this is deliberate, it is a very strange experience. There is no narrative. The piece begins with Terry (Terry O’Connor) telling us, in rather lovely terms, what makes a good story. It’s interesting and makes you concentrate, but goes on a bit too long until someone steals the mic and begins to tell their own story. They are in turn interrupted, at various points, by a man trying to hang himself from a clothes rail; a piano being taken for a walk; a drumkit being assembled, disassembled and played; by advice from their fellow actors about how to improve their story; by requests to be in the story; by a ghost dancing; by a Russian lesson, which in turn is interrupted by a man in a rubber mask. Sound confusing? It is, and that’s without factoring in multiple, on-stage costume changes for no discernible reason, and the fact that we only get to hear the end of one of the stories.
It’s all very clever, but I’m not sure how well it hangs together as a theatrical experience: it somehow doesn’t feel as though it quite becomes the sum of its meandering, myriad parts. There are some lovely moments, but as they begin to take shape, and to take hold emotionally, they are cut short, or undercut, or dropped altogether. It’s curiously unsatisfying, but in a way that makes me feel that I am the one at fault – that my need for a story, for a narrative thread, for some kind of cohesion, is the problem rather than the piece itself. Forced Entertainment gives the impression of being highly intelligent, which makes you feel that there must be a considered creative reason behind each decision – even the ones that didn’t work for me. The whole of The Coming Storm made me feel slightly inadequate as an audience member, especially the bits that bored me. I did not quite grasp what was being asked of me at each stage in the process, and that made me uncomfortable. There are many, many lovely fragments – and some funny bits, and some poignant bits – but I am not sure that it worked as a whole piece of theatre.
A tear-jerking story, told by the hapless Phil (Phil Hayes) about his dying mother, is undercut by Cathy (Cathy Naden) snatching the mic and screaming at him for being sentimental – she tells him off for his choice of story and ridicules its emotion. But, hang on, he just told a story about his dead mum. You can’t shout at him, there are rules… Except, of course, there aren’t, and what the company does so well is point that out. If you like your theatre provocative, intelligent and, sometimes, confusing, then go and see The Coming Storm. Calling something “interesting” is not often meant in a positive way, but this is a piece that will have me thinking for a while to come. It’s not a comfortable evening – and it feels rather baggy in the middle – but it does make you think. Oh, and there’s a great bit with a crocodile.
The Coming Storm is playing at the Battersea Arts Centre until 23 June as part of London International Festival of Theatre. For more information and tickets, see the BAC website. Photo by Hugo Glendinning.