Saturday, October 24, 2015

'The Loris' at the Bloomsbury Festival, 23rd October 2015


The Loris is a tricky bit of theatre to review. It runs on pure-grade surprise, sending participants pinballing around underneath UCL while hearing some very strange stories. The audience will spiral down staircases into the earth and see some of the Georgian industrial machinery that used to power UCL, all given context by a melancholy physicist and some excellent puppetry.

Much of the piece is set in and around UCL's colossal Senate House, once described as a "static, massive pyramid  obviously designed to last for a thousand years".  Critics dubbed it Stalinist and totalitarian; something George Orwell obviously agreed with when he based the Ministry of Truth on it in Nineteen Eighty-Four (the excellent John Hurt film adaptation also used the location).

The monumental design combined with ominous cultural associations give the building  a spookily atmospheric pull on the neighbourhood. I quite like it, especially when viewed under typically London slate-grey overcast skies. It's all to easy to pause, stare up at it and think "Big Brother Is Watching You".

The Loris toys with these feelings of ominousness; plunging us deep inside the building to chambers we're assured are "extremely deadly". Our guide is the melancholy and reclusive Dr Snow (Gráinne Byrne), who has become wrapped up in her work to the exclusion of all else. She confidently stalks the backstage labyrinths of the building like a ghost, leading us down unprepossessing corridors that open out onto gigantically impressive rooms.

Assisting her is a security guard, Darren (Aaron Gordon). His Dad worked down here, allowing young Darren to play in the warrens of tunnels and pipes that snake underneath the building. He provides the humanity to offset Snow's aloofness, chipping in with little cheery comments when things get a tiny bit too heavy.

The Loris isn't exactly an uplifting tale - it's studded with betrayals, tragedy and death. Even the initially uplifting Darren gets his moments of regret in his past. As you leave you're not entirely sure what the moral was, though there's some irreducible core of sadness lurking at the heart of the piece. This enigmatic tone dovetails beautifully with the truly special places in which these scenes take place.

Going 'backstage' was the absolute high-point for me: I love being led beyond doors with pictograms of men being electrocuted and signs that read "DANGER OF DEATH" and finding myself amidst gigantic old machinery. I've unwittingly been mere meters from many of these places - there's a thrill in staring up from underneath the pavement and watching the footsteps of the students up above you. By the mid-way point I felt as if the building were some gigantic organism and I were a germ inside. Every surface bristles with pipes, gargantuan tanks squat under the ground and dark tunnels wind off into infinity.

I've always had a passion for subterranean London and though we're teased with the promise of tunnels so secret that we can't possibly go in there - it's still hugely satisfying. The Loris fills these naturally atmospheric places with a keenly conveyed sense of longing, using the disused spaces to underline some moving psychological truths..

It's a hell of an experience, beautifully performed by Byrne and Gordon, and one I'm unlikely to forget in a hurry. As I post this there's only two performances to go, both today! So hop to it!

★★★★

The Loris has just two performances left at the Bloomsbury Festival - today at 16:00 and 19:30. Tickets here. Chop chop.

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