Review: Dark Matter / Don't You Dare, Tristan Bates Theatre

A Piece of the Continent is the Tristan Bates Theatre’s festival of theatre in response to Brexit, bringing together shows straddling languages, cultures and disciplines, with nine productions across April. The first three run from 8-13 April, and I managed to see two.

Dark Matter, the first of the performances, is preceded in the line-up by A Voice at 6.15pm and then followed by Don’t You Dare! for a triplicate. This curious, flawed but endearing piece of puppetry, microcinema and physicality is the story of Alfie, an Italian astrophysicist living with dementia, haunted by echoes of his life, his lost wife, his dreams and failures, and the impossible mysteries of meaning in life, the universe, and (yes) dark matter.

The most important thing to say is that the most crucial part of the show, namely the puppetry, is generally wonderfully done, and crosses over into dangerously moving territory at times. The puppetry trio of Adam Courting (head, left hand and also the voice of Alfie), Aurora Adams (right hand) and Alicia Britt (feet) work seamlessly to create the crucial magic that makes the solid, fixed face of the octogenarian Alfie seem to somehow change in accordance with the needs of the scene. Alfie (Kelly Frost’s creation) is a relatable, endearing, wonderfully made and moving figure.

There is no doubt that the performances are strong all-round. The main problems are that the story is not as strong, with a disjointed and sometimes slightly foggy progression of events that can obscure the emotional impact of the piece. The cosmic pretensions of the show (taking cues from Stephen Hawking’s The Origins of Time) sometimes work and sometimes don’t, with some ponderous voice-overs that could be cut or reworked. As a study of dementia, Dark Matter is largely deeply touching and engages some imaginative theatricality to guide us through Alfie’s loss of grip on his life and his past.

However, in the end the piece doesn’t feel cohesive. Rather like the alternately endearing, grumpy and flagging Alfie, it runs out of steam and just stops. But there is still enough to warm to.

Don’t You Dare! is a simultaneous deconstruction and reconstruction of the Italian theatrical tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, written, directed and performed by Chiara D’Anna of Panta Rei Theatre. It is an impressive 75 minutes of ceaseless energy, physical and vocal transformation by D’Anna, who adopts five stock characters – the clergyman, the soldier, the old woman, the Commedia actress, and Gino, populist snake-oil salesman.

D’Anna’s performances of all of these characters bristle with ever-increasing energy, and it is tremendous fun to surrender to her enthusiasm and storytelling abilities, although the more political points she makes seem hardly new and original. It is, however, an interesting choice to present the chaos of our current cultural and political climate through the similar chaos of the world of Commedia, where satire and exaggeration is so crucial, producing a world that mirrors our hysterical reality rather uncomfortably closely.

Audience interaction and enthusiastic participation abound, and D’Anna handles the transition from this kind of fare to the darker finale of the piece well, although it must be said that that finale does not really work and is rather jarring given the light-hearted tone of what has come before. However, this isn’t a sticking point. The wonderfully effective set by Jelmer Tuinstra is another cause for praise, only revealing its full colours as the show progresses. Natasa Stamatari’s Commedia costumes are nicely underplayed while still conveying strong character.

Although both shows have visible room for tightening up, the charm and pleasure of Dark Matter and Don’t You Dare! are infectious, a gift of not overly-politicised, fun theatre among the absurd hysteria that is Brexit, Europe and all that jazz at the moment.

Dark Matter and Don’t You Dare! played the Tristan Bates Theatre until 13 April 2019. For more information, see the A Piece of the Continent website.