What makes a perfect flatshare? Is it the people, the beliefs, the parties or the simple things such as harmony through the washing up being done? Bridges and Balloons by young company Imaginary Friends at The Rag Factory is a play about flat sharing when you’re a student, combined with the larger questions of believing in freedom from society’s constraints and normal models of functioning. It’s an ambitious piece for a company which set itself an agenda to make political work outside the ‘established institutes’, to fuel a need for creative art that doesn’t cost a fortune and pops up where necessary. Whilst these ambitions are promising, Bridges and Balloons, with its drug-fueled parties and fraught friendships and relationships, is a piece of theatre in need of refinement.
Writers Rob Skinner and Daisy-May Pattison-Corney have framed their piece within a student house in Manchester where five friends have found their own ecosystem beyond the university’s other students. Where the only three rules are ‘Freedom. No Aliens. Freedom’, they live by their own beliefs and agendas, philosophising and of course, they party. When a sixth housemate joins them, it triggers the start of the demise of this perfect setting. The drugs get more demanding, the cash harder to come by, the relationships strained and friendships are brought down like collapsing bridges. Episodic in nature, and flickering between ensemble scenes and duologues, Skinner and Pattison-Corney portray today’s students as those who have been affected by a harsh world, who have learnt from the micro-societies and anti-establishment uprisings.
The disappointment within Bridges and Balloons comes in many forms. Skinner and Pattison-Corney’s writing is too thin to hold the characters firmly in place. The scenes of engagement are fast and too many, building snapshots of wants and desires, or trusts and friendships, but they never allow the dialogue to fully explore what could be a promising set of characters. There is some stereotyping with characters such as Oliver (Laurie Davidson) and Megan (Harriet Madeley) who clearly come from wealthy more ambitious families than Benny (Daniel Wilby) and Lizzy (Rosa Torr). This in turn seems to give way to over-emphasising of characters’ stereotyping, with some cringing acting to meet this. This is balanced against the slightly more dynamic and deeper characters of Jim (Jordan Lee) and newcomer Wendy (Jessica Austin) who quickly become the characters who think outside the structure of society and situations.
Whilst the set up is meaningful, there are continuous dramaturgical and directional flaws that really let Bridges and Balloons down. The splitting of the stage into a generic ‘bedroom’ and the living room, makes for a table tennis effect as the scenes continually jump between one and the other. Pattison-Corney’s direction sees some scenes carrying on in darkness whilst the other begins, which becomes increasing distracting. Equally, stage conventions are set up and then misused, and there are several points where cigarettes are carelessly discarded on the stage.
Continually, the pacing of the show lags, and what becomes two hours with an interval could easily be cut by removing tranisitions and reworking scenes so that they flow more freely, instead of snippets of dialogues playing in one room before cutting to the other. This is where, ultimately, Imaginary Friends has not succeeded in their work. By focusing too much on mounting the production and attempting to get the dynamics in place, they have overlooked what makes a piece of theatre engaging for its audience. Whilst there are some laugh out loud moments, and some thought-provoking ideas on society and how we function within it, the dialogue, direction and acting are carelessly held together. It’s a production in need of refinement to bring out the company’s missions, and to find the excitement – the electric pulse of drug fueled parities and of close-kit friends gone astray.
Outside eyes during the theatre making process and continually being willing to push and experiment, to challenge and rework text and direction, will help the company in the future. For now, Bridges and Balloons is a gallant effort, but falls at every attempt to be a piece of theatre worth watching and remembering. A reminder that you can get your performance space, get your cast and text together and call it theatre, but without the spark of theatrical excitement that all theatre demands, this theatre just becomes lifeless.