What is in store for each of us in the mystery-in-progress known as 2017? We may not all be ready to confront that question yet, but the members of RedBelly Black Theatre Company have started the process of inquiry for us in A Year From Now – their probing, appealing contribution to the VAULT Festival in Waterloo.
A Year From Now presents the recorded voices of fourteen real people – ranging from a toddler to a nonagenarian – as they ponder where they are, where they have been, and where they will find themselves in a year’s time. A youthful and spirited collection of performers – Clementine Mills, Christopher Montague, Oscar Scott-White, Jessica Warshaw, and Kate Goodfellow (who doubles as the company’s artistic director and the show’s choreographer) – mouth the words of the interviewees while morphing into each speaker, and sometimes staging their stories.
Despite the hour-long running time, the brief excerpts of the interviews somehow allow each figure’s complexities to feel fully fleshed out and distinct. And, while the shadows of Trump and Brexit hang gently over the proceedings, they never dominate the landscape of each individual’s fears and wishes for the year to come.
Of the cast, Scott-White stands out in two gender-crossing characterisations. In both bits, he skilfully transfigures himself, the bend of an old woman’s back and the swish of a teenage girl’s hips distinctly rendering images to accompany the voices he embodies. The true stars of the show, though, are the fourteen interview subjects, a treasure trove of wit, fragility, and grace. Scott-White’s teenager, for example, both laments that “You have to have good eyebrows” to survive in school before, with stunning self-awareness, reflecting that her greatest fear is that, a year from now, everything will have stayed the same.
A Year From Now relies, most of all, on the team’s unwavering respect for each of the subjects’ stories; a respect that is palpable throughout. It is disappointing, then, that Goodfellow and director Vicki Baron sometimes seem to lose trust in the diversity and richness of their characters’ voices, constantly shifting stage pictures and prioritizing nonstop movement, even at the expense of the stories being told. The play is at its best when the actors simply explore the physicality of their characters as they participate in the recorded interviews. Scenes in which multiple actors enact a single voice, or in which the company illustrates what the speaker describes through excessively literal action, tend to obscure the individuality of the voices in question. One of the best interviews, featuring the parents of a new-born, sees its specificity occasionally buried in the highly-stylised movement accompanying it. Nor do a series of choreographed transitions, ranging from line dances with lip-synched songs to modern dance routines, seem to have much to do with the play’s themes.
Luckily, these periods of unnecessary busyness never distract entirely from the skill with which the speakers’ words have been assembled. A quartet of tales reflecting on disease and injury – most movingly featuring a jaunty postal worker (Goodfellow) who has suffered a stroke, and a hopeful expectant mother (Warshaw) recovering from cancer – avoids excess through the careful weaving together of the narratives. For example, the meticulous script juxtaposes one interviewee’s description of his disability as a “battle with another’s insisting that while “some would say… battle,” she prefers to think of her illness as a game. Only here, when physical bodies are threatened and harmed in the stories being told, does the stylised movement really work.
By the play’s end, when a final montage brings back several of the figures, including Scott-White’s elderly woman, it feels like a reunion with old friends. The troupe’s final tableau is both a touching tribute to the fourteen subjects who have shared their stories, and an unspoken promise – or, perhaps, a plea – to keep listening.
A Year From Now featured at the VAULT Festival, Waterloo. For more information and tickets on what’s on, see here.