“10th February 2005. At the stroke of midnight the British punch, kick, strangle and eventually stab their way to £45 sofas and £35 bed frames at the opening of their favourite Swedish furniture store.”
Having been thoroughly excited by their scratch performance at Prototype earlier this year, I couldn’t wait to see how The Wardrobe Ensemble had developed this piece in the intervening months. I arrived at the Bristol Old Vic wondering what new realms of creativity I would see, ready to be impressed, but also slightly anxious that I might be setting myself up for a letdown after such a good first impression. Did they disappoint? In short, no.
Riot is an engaging performance from the word go, with captivating glimpses of a plethora of characters and imaginative transitions between innumerable incidents. As a company they completely embrace the technical aspects of the phenomenal number of transitions, actively playing with each and every one, not letting a single moment become one of those awkward pauses while people, props and set are shuffled around. Perhaps in the hands of another company these moments could have been harried and clumsy, but with The Wardrobe Ensemble they are constantly mesmerising and integral to both the story and the piece as a whole. Not a single moment was noticeably dropped, and this really says something for their wonderful sense of timing and ensemble.
Sense of timing is the key to this production’s success: from the brilliantly quick flashes of eye-witness accounts cut to absurd shortness by the click of a light switch, to the comedy songs, live music and the well-choreographed physical sequences. Aside from performative timing there is the literal timing of the story and the inescapable countdown to the opening of the store’s doors. Each mention of ‘13 minutes to go’ and ‘9 minutes to go’ gives you a fresh sense of the underlying tensions beneath even the calmest of characters and a universal obedience to time. However, I felt that they missed a trick here: while it gave a sufficient reminder of the time, it could have been played upon more and magnified for far greater effect. Perhaps that’s not the point, but the countdown didn’t feel as prominent as the rest of the action implied. However, this is a minor point in an otherwise well-crafted piece with enough drive, energy and wit to keep the audience in a fairly constant state of near-laughter and booming guffaws.
The performers all work well together, supporting every moment in one way or another, and with some spectacular visual and physical moments. I have to say I particularly enjoyed the would-be-hero character dashing through the hordes to give lifesaving first aid. It was inventive theatre at its silliest, with Python-esque running and an entire journey filled with body-lined corridors, flights of imaginary stairs and backward-opening doors – all of which caught the audience’s imaginations and had them laughing at every turn.
It is a performance packed with many moments of delight, surprise and humorous ingenuity, but also has some down-to-earth scenes of human vulnerability. The lovelorn hero gained a couple of audible ‘ah’s from the audience, even after having produced some of the biggest laughs, but it was the exchange between a snubbed Polish staff member and a scared old man huddled together in a quiet cupboard which brought a different level to the performance. I initially felt that it was unnecessarily bringing the piece down somewhat, but actually the scene keeps the underlying pace well enough that it provided a nice juxtaposition and gently pointed us toward a more serious look at human behaviour and modern consumerism which underpinned the whole production.
But there is no time to get stuck in these more sentimental moments; the chaos quickly returns and parody reigns supreme. I found myself increasingly leaning forward with my mouth hanging open, mesmerised by one moment after another, ready to laugh again. The energy, focus and inventiveness of this group will stand them in good stead for future productions and I look forward to their next creation. I’d recommend getting tickets while stocks last.