Told in a tone of light-hearted jest, through physical theatre and skilful puppetry, Bears in Space is exactly what it says on the tin: a play about bears in space. This comic production is the creation of Irish theatre collective Collapsing Horse, whose work has proven popular with audiences in Edinburgh and London alike. Now the company bring Bears in Space back to Soho Theatre for the second time this year, packing their 80-minute show full of playful surrealism, serious silliness and vintage storytelling.
Aaron Heffernan’s design is exquisite, with puppetry ranging from fluffy, hand-held bears – the story’s protagonists – to delicate paper cut-outs of the characters, who scamper with precision across the hand-drawn, artfully unravelled landscape. The silhouetted projections are stylish and unpretentious, playfully mocking their art form as they zoom shakily in and out of focus. In this simple story, we follow a space-travelling koala bear (Heffernan) and polar bear (Eoghan Quinn) who, aided by a friendly computer (Jack Gleeson), travel into the dangerous air space of Metrotopia – a land ruled by an evil dictator (Gleeson) who suffers from abandonment issues. Whilst Gleeson playing an evil dictator might sound familiar, unlike his character Joffrey in Game of Thrones, Gleeson’s character has an impish, comical presence about him in Bears in Space. Furthermore his performance is captivating, with acute comic timing and an array of strong characterisations throughout. Heffernan also gives a notable performance, passionately bringing his puppets to life and mastering multiple accents – from Scottish to Mexican – with gruff, southern British thrown in between.
On the surface much of the script seems like gobbledygook, but Quinn’s writing is intelligent and surreal, spoon-feeding us twisted logic and bizarre metaphors and leaving us grappling to find shreds of truth in ideas such as the relationship between love and hate being like a roll of sellotape. Quinn’s fantastical plot is packaged up in a tight, well-rounded story, split into chapters and speckled with voguish “incredible” jokes that keep the audience laughing throughout. Cameron McCauley is a fine storyteller and his musical interludes whisk us smoothly between scenes, whilst his songs give the comedy a light, sentimental tinge. Collapsing Horse clearly work well as a theatre collective; they make Bears in Space look like it was fun to create, and each member exudes energy and passion throughout the performance. This is one to catch if you can bag a ticket.
Bears in Space is playing at the Soho Theatre until 2 January 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website. Photo: Idil Sukan.