Review: Outlier, Bristol Old Vic
3.0Overall Score
Audio of this review

Gigs may currently be off, but this co-production with Old Vic Ferment fuses their kinetic atmosphere and music-informed storytelling into a bold piece of gig-theatre. Created by a young South West team — writer-director Malaika Kegode and band Jakabol — they use their premiere on the Bristol Old Vic’s main stage as a platform for their talent and the ordinary young lives Kegode doesn’t want to be forgotten.

The lives are those she remembers of her teenage friends in Devon. Finding themselves lost in the general muddle of adolescence, their collective “feeling of belonging was addictive.” But it’s how they each try to satisfy that addiction — exploring alcohol at house parties to harder drugs in bedrooms — that leads both to heightened blissful bonding and the indelible sorrow she tries to purge to us.

Rebecca Wood’s design resembles a living room — the kind of relaxed, open space where Kegode can share these authentic stories. The lowkey, homely set comprises shabby sofas, rugs and wallpaper, with spherical lamps providing globes of light like suspended moons. There’s the same casual feel to Christopher Harrisson’s projected animations, using sketchy illustrations like those that might decorate the pages of a schoolgirl’s diary.

Kegode’s storytelling is equally wistful. She’s often looking out or looking up, dancing round in spirals or wrapping her arms around herself as the music swells. The second half is slower and despondent as she withdraws from the world, although this tone makes it feel long and less engaging.

Her simple delivery reflects the plain set and her opening promise to tell a real story about real people. Her spoken word performance allows the lines to land with the impact of how she captures the sensations of her experiences: being thrown out of a party “into the sharp slap of the early morning.” However, it sometimes becomes oblique when it works a little too hard to find something poetically abstract or profoundly existentialist: “nights are days, days are nights, but none of it matters.”

But the show’s full of spirit and conviction. Jakobol blends an eclectic mix of harp, drums, violin and electric guitar — itself a metaphor for the group’s dynamic — into one punkish, anarchic sound. It reinforces Kegode’s emotional peaks and troughs, starting out with rock growls before mellowing out into soft strings, then picking up again into jaunty chords. However, their heavy emotional scoring means there’s little subtlety — always telegraphing what could otherwise be delicate moments of reflection — and their presence overpowers Kegode’s portrayal of loneliness.

While the story is honestly told, it’s left feeling like a specific, localised series of events to one friendship group in Devon. For all her expression of hurt at what happened to her friends, she doesn’t delve far into the lack of responsibility, protection or concern that lets many groups of young people spiral into addiction and fade away. But it’s an incredibly confident and often imaginative piece about a personal experience in these “often-forgotten places” that’ll be hard to forget.

Outlier is available in-theatre or online until 26 June. For more information, see Bristol Old Vic online.