Cartography is a story about Sarah, a girl who loves maps (although she never intends to go travelling), who has her eyes opened and eventually her heart broken by John, a budding explorer.
To paraphrase a line from the show, in Sarah’s head, the audience are all like-minded, enthusiastic cartographers. Like a Blue Peter presenter, she manages to explain the basic principles of cartography just using paper and string, and suddenly a seemingly boring subject is brought to life with the cast’s joyful energy. This sweetly naïve aspect of the characterisation lends itself to Flickbook Theatre’s enchanting style of storytelling, which makes Cartography feel like a grown-up’s fairytale about love, life and adventure.
The comical and surprising methods that Flickbook Theatre uses to reinvent storytelling remind me of Forced Entertainment theatre company. The set – or rather, lack of it – extends beyond thrust staging, so that the company isn’t bound to the parameters usually set for small fringe theatre productions. The cast use the space to their advantage, inviting audience members to create soundscapes, hold props and sometimes even be props. These starring roles could distract some audience members from the main action at times, but for the most part, the high level of audience participation makes this play all the more engaging. It unites the audience in their experience of the show, unlike some experiences I’ve had where audience participation can make you feel anxious and singled out.
Alongside this, the company use illustrations shown on an overhead projector to set the scenes, again making you feel like you’ve stepped into a storybook. In Flickbook Theatre’s world, you make friends with the protagonist and would rather see them have a happy ending than endure heavy, hammy drama. This vision is an accomplishment of confident writing and direction from Tom Briggs that reminds us theatre should first and foremost be entertaining. And what better way to illustrate that point than occasionally breaking out into song? The final creative stroke with which Flickbook Theatre delivers its story is with a musical underscore on the ukulele. Musical director Jozey Wade has created some songs that narrate the action or cleverly fill in gaps where the staging needs resetting, and the simple major harmonies just cement the joyous character of Flickbook Theatre’s world. It’s true that with so many things going on on stage, the delivery can sometimes verge on hectic in such a small space, but when the choreography is at its most finessed, it’s a testament to the power of the imagination.
The cast of four double up as both performers and company members, having written, directed, marketed etc. the entire show themselves but the performances don’t seem to suffer. Our protagonist, Sarah, is played by Becky Sowter: unless she’s talking about maps like an over-excited child, she can seem a bit away with the fairies (probably daydreaming about maps), which gives her a very childlike quality. So the rest of the cast look after her, handling seamless transitions of both set and character to propel the story forward.
Despite using unconventional techniques, the atmosphere that Flickbook Theatre create and, moreover, invite you into with Cartography, makes this one of the most conventional pieces of theatre I’ve seen, in that I believed in the world of these characters from the very beginning and, what’s more, cared about them. I don’t usually like happy endings – being a cynical soul, I don’t think they’re very lifelike. But unless you’re made of stone, Cartography is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Cartography played at the Lincoln Performing Arts Centre on 23 July. It continues at C nova from 5-31 August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For tickets and more information see the Edinburgh Fringe website. Photo: Flickbook Theatre.