As I stand in my socially distanced space and Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show explodes out of the back of a white van, with the manic energy of a macabre Ska band, I think that theatre might survive this hellish ordeal after all.
This is the first piece of in-person theatre I have seen since March and though I am thrilled, I am apprehensive. Will the bubble of excitement be there when we wait to be welcomed into the venue? Will the audience collectively gasp as the lights dim? Will I be able to fully immerse myself in the story if I’m forever conscious of staying near the (very Primary School PE lesson) cone marking my allotted space?
Leeds Playhouse handle the new measures brilliantly, standing individual attendees inside the building two metres apart until the performance space is ready. Everyone wears their masks and lots of layers- this performance will take place outside in Yorkshire during October so layers are a necessity! Directed to our own spot in the Square, the tension is palpable. Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show rises to the challenges presented by COVID admirably: as a piece of street theatre it feels appropriate that we are outdoors, and the carnival atmosphere is ideal for the fast and furious storytelling to come.
The stage itself emerges from the van: replete with sideshow sign, thrusts, and a cyclorama projected onto by Simon Wainwright’s psychedelic projections. A punk aesthetic rules; with frenzied dancing to a colourful soundtrack by James Hamilton, and melodies so reminiscent of Madness that you swear you’ve heard them before.
There are some very clever moments: I am particularly delighted with the company’s use of live recording, and the applying of perspective and puppets to achieve multi-character scenes with only three actors. Grotesque masks and dolls are employed skilfully and it is impossible to ignore the similarity between the floppy blond mask which represented the malfeasant mayor and certain politicians with whom we are familiar. The more Brechtian aspects of the piece translate well to agit-prop performance, and some moments which employ Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt prove genuinely hilarious. Matt Prendergast is especially captivating as Dr Blood as he walks a fine line between Machiavellian menace and enchanting storyteller.
In parts, sadly, the piece feels hurried and incomplete. The characters are typically two-dimensional, the plot could use fleshing out and despite a clear morality tale denouement, I leave slightly dissatisfied. It is, however, impossible to compare this piece to other live shows I have seen since the parameters in which the company must work are unlike any encountered before. I’m not sure more could be packed into a mere thirty minutes onstage, and thirty minutes standing still on a cold October night is long enough. If the reincarnation of theatre is inspired by the ideas of its infancy (travelling players, side-show, and circus) then I am more than happy to champion it; though I must invest in some hand-warmers and a thicker coat.
Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show will tour nationally between 7th and 24th Oct. For more information and tickets see Imitating the Dog’s website.