Forced Entertainment’s last show, Void Story, was a dramatised radio play. By this, I mean the actors actually sat at tables onstage, speaking into microphones in different voices with no ‘action’ other than a slideshow of projected images. It was a radical experiment in stagecraft and storytelling whose deadpan absurdity was hugely rewarding for those who kept up, and dull and perplexing to others. The Coming Storm pushes the interrogation of narrative even further; Void Story, whilst rambling and bizarre, was nonetheless linear and whole, whereas the latest show is a collection of fragments woven together associatively by the cast. The company id physically animated here, cavorting around in an outlandish wardrobe of costumes, dancing, playing (and playing with) instruments as they tell their short and unfinished stories.
Forced Entertainment’s signature surreal humour had the audience laughing from the outset, with a brilliantly British sense of awkwardness and the mundane. The comedy comes from the contrast of theatrical elements, as the cast conspire to ruin each other’s stories and performances with loud or visually striking distractions. The Coming Storm perceptively plays with the ‘correct’ response to material, but it’s not as simple as mere comic depravity; the shocking, or the incongruous, will undercut something funny so quickly that different people in the audience are likely to have different reactions. But it doesn’t always work – there are a couple of recurring gags that always fall flat, and a drawn out sequence with a hangman’s noose that was a little too obvious.
Terry O’Connor tells us at the beginning that a good story might have “twisting paths that seem to be going nowhere”; these certainly do. It can be frustrating – for all its colour and chaos, the concept of this production isn’t developed enough to sustain its length, and it’s very repetitive. Someone actually asked in the post-show talk if the piece was an endurance test (if it was, a few of the audience failed) and it’s true that the company don’t give you quite enough to hang on with them for the whole ride.
Despite this, The Coming Storm is charming and thought-provoking for the most part. The cast are controlled amidst the anarchy, with a comically understated way of telling their bizarre or disturbing tales. The actors’ onstage chemistry is palpable – they’ve worked together since 1984 – and it’s refreshing to see truly collaborative work in such a large theatre space. Whilst getting a little caught up in itself at times, Forced Entertainment proves in The Coming Storm that it has retained a childlike approach to the possibilities of theatre and a fearless commitment to innovation.
The Coming Storm is currently on tour. For more information and tour dates see the Forced Entertainment website.