Before entering the modern theatre space at artsdepot, the audience are given one piece of advice: trust your instincts. We begin by filling out luggage tags with our names and addresses, and at the same time hear a brief explanation from the director Toby Ealden, who reassures the rather youthful audience that it is okay to feel awkward or emotionally uncomfortable during this production. Thrive, touring nationally, explores the notion of Post Traumatic Growth. The story of three teenagers as they learn to cope – perhaps even thrive – with life after the accidental death of their friend James.
Walking into the space to a pulsating soundtrack and a steel set of ladders and exposed light bulbs designed by Barney George, arranged around a small circular stage, the audience prepares itself for something different. With a 360 degree view, the audience are immersed into the lives of these three teenagers and an expectation of something rather profound fills the air. Immediately, the audience are encouraged to interact, play alongside and listen to these characters. As members of the audience disperse across the stage and enter the new territory of graffiti (spray-painting is rather liberating), spoken word and a game of jenga; which is played rather competitively among the audience.
As the lighting intensifies, the music changes just as the jenga tower crashes down and a ball drops. A blood soaked t-shirt is lifted up and instantly the mood changes. A police announcement freezes the characters as though they are hearing the news for the first time. The audience are now introduced to a fourth character, James, through a series of anecdotes which are skilfully told by Ollie (Daniel Morgan) and Ashleigh (Claire Gaydon) who were James best friends. We learn more about this rather charming 16-year-old boy who seemed to have it all. At times, his attributes feel rather forced and James doesn’t quite reach perfection despite his good looks, wealthy parents and urbane behaviour. He seems rather mean in spirit especially with the cruel mocking of his friend Ollie.
Zest Theatre use a range of techniques to enhance the audience’s experience as we witness expressing the coping strategies of the characters. For instance, Morgan performs a movement piece; inspired by the style of Punch Drunk to a continuous soundtrack which emphasises how he is struggling with the trauma. Luke Vernon, playing Raph, performs a spoken word piece entitled “Before I Die” around the audience implying that there is more to consider in life after the death. Gaydon, behaves as a rather promiscuous teenager discussing opportunities for drinking and heavy petting openly. We are left assuming her relationship with James was more intimate in the days before he died.
The inclusion of symbolic motifs somehow gets missed amongst the action. Raph spends a majority of his time trying to solve a rubix cube which he does at the end. The planting of a cactus by Ashleigh and Ollie, in James’ memory, somehow misses the point and therefore does not create the impact that it is meant to have.
However, the audience are totally immersed in the story line as we all become friends at a house party and this maintains the energy level. Hearing and watching members of the audience at times, showing their first reaction to the production, is sometimes stronger than the play itself. Surrounded by a young teenage audience whose first experience of site-specific promenade theatre is enchanting. Zest knows this and relishes the opportunity to captivate those who may think theatre isn’t for them.
However, it is only at the question and answer session where the story line becomes clearer. Based on real-life experiences, it is an innovative approach to Theatre in Education particularly with the promenade style. Yet without knowing the backstory of the research and development, it would be easy to write this show off.
Thrive played at artsdepot on October 13, and it continues to tour. For more information and tickets, see http://zesttheatre.com/thrive