Where the Hell is Bernard? straddles a strange space between dystopian drama and mime. This Edinburgh preview of the play poses questions, but during the hour-long performance you find yourself wondering if it is ever going to answer them.
Four women, each with the same bleach blonde bobbed hair, navy overalls, and timidity form Unit 17. Workers for an overarching organisation named The Vine, they prepare citizens for an unspecified “evaporation”, a process that recalls tales of mass extermination. It’s a setting that focuses on industrial control which is reflected in the uniformity of dress and the white boxy units that the workers use as props.
The plot is sweet. Bernard – represented by a hat and the arms of a grey shirt that the actors embody and bring to life – runs away from his “evaporation”, and inspires a gradual revolt in Unit 17. It develops into a coming of age story for these four women, who learn about books, drinking, sex, and babies in a very short space of time. It is quite charming in places, but then in others a little contrived, and irritating – the random jump into ‘Wheels on the Bus’ comes to mind.
The reliance on mime is initially fitting for these repressed workers, but soon seems forced and infuriates a little as the voiceless remain voiceless. What is more, the silence means that the themes remain too abstract, too theoretical, and never come close enough to home.
The performances – even when there are few lines – are slightly mixed. The mime is strong in most parts, at times funny, at others quite beautiful, and manages to edge towards something quite emotive. Yet, the line delivery doesn’t quite hit the mark and they feel read and learnt rather than a performance.
Ultimately, there isn’t enough in Where the Hell is Bernard? to inspire the fearful empathy that a piece that focuses on the dystopian should create. It’s effective in the physical but just fails to push beyond. A neat, aesthetically pleasing attempt that shows promise, but needs a little more context to seal the deal.
Where the Hell is Bernard? played Blue Elephant Theatre on 10 July
Photo: Rarar Su