“Just keep me safe. Don’t let me do anything stupid, and don’t tell me anything that I already know. Do we have a deal?”

After a ten-year absence from the stage, choreographer, filmmaker and director Mark Murphy returns with Out of This World at the Peacock Theatre in Holborn. Performed by V-TOL Dance Company (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) – of which Murphy is both the founder and Artistic Director – Out of This World tells the story of Ellen and her descent into a medically induced coma. Part psychological thriller, part medical drama, she discovers a shocking truth from the depths of anaesthesia, and must escape from her narcotized refuge in order to fight for her life.

V-TOL are renowned for pushing the limits of traditional dance theatre, and integrate film, music, text, choreography and design into their performances. In this fusion of art forms, the company have created their own movement language as a means of communicating complex narratives. Highly dynamic and physical, this style is born out of Murphy’s appreciation of speed and flight, as well as the risks that this involves. Performed within a highly visual structure, contrasting artistic layers create an intricate theatrical experience that explores human relationships, behaviour, weakness and our capacity for cruelty.

Murphy and designer Becky Minto use the Peacock’s proscenium arch stage well, creating a futuristic and clinical box set. A telephone clings to the left wall, glowing red, and twelve chairs litter the floor of the stage, as if dropped from a great height. Two wires shoot from its epicentre, flying over the audience, and twelve carabiners hang over the stage, suspended in mid-air. This pre-set provides the first of the many layers of intracranial injury. A cast of six manoeuvre Ellen’s exhausted consciousness, buzzing through the hive of the hospital interior with its invisible fourth wall. Indeed, the set reinforces an interesting meta-theatrical fragment, as Ellen (played by Sarah Swire) continually introduces herself to the audience, rendering the performance transparent by asking them to keep her safe. The audience are drawn in, complicit with the action, and are identified by Ellen herself as no more than an image of her own creation.

The use of projection sutures the physical world to that of the digital, and is accompanied by flashing lights and the distant chopping of helicopter wings. The stage rumbles and surges with a score that dances between a symphony of strings and the disembodied voices of doctors. Designed by Nathaniel Reed, the score manipulates the atmosphere of Ellen’s mind. An instrumental signifies a melancholic collapse in the action, and a medical narrator suggests a quickening of pace: “Stand clear, push to shock”.

As the piece continues, the audience become increasingly restless during the more mundane scenes, and moments of urgency are met with an enthusiastic response. There are some screams at instances of spectacular aerial choreography, and bubbles of laughter greet unexpected uses of comedy throughout. To prevent a lapse in energy, the narrative would benefit from additional spells of high intensity to maintain the connection between the audience and action that is created by Ellen at the beginning of the piece.

The production is very well done, and thoughtfully put together. V-TOL approach their craft with an obvious innovation that is commendable, if a little rusty after a ten-year hiatus.

Out of This World played at the Peacock Theatre until May 3. 

Photo: Jane Hobson