Friday, June 15, 2018

Review: 'Nine Foot Nine' at The Bunker, 14th June 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

I was sold on Nine Foot Nine the moment I first heard its Charlie Kaufman-esque premise: how would the world change if the majority of women suddenly became nine foot tall? It's precisely the kind of high concept idea that appeals to me, with the play promising to examine how women being inarguably the stronger sex would affect society. 

Sure, it sounds a little bit like someone's internet fetish brought to life, but I was curious to see how the production would put nine-foot characters on stage. Actors on stilts? Casting tall women actors alongside short men? Some kind of forced perspective or miniaturised props?

The narrative skeleton is a domestic drama about a British family, comprising Mum Cara (Alexandra James), Dad Nate (Paul O'Dea) and daughter Sophie (Natalie Kimmerling). We open two months before the big change (referred to as 'sprouting') when Cara finds out she's pregnant. The rest of the play runs through a jumbled chronology which skips back and forth over 16 years in which we see the short and long-term consequences of the situation. In addition, we get snippets of news reports that flesh out this new society.

Playwright Alex Wood and company Sleepless Theatre treat a surreal situation very seriously and have clearly thought long and hard about how things might change. The best bits are when we see how gender relations have shifted, with men finding themselves shunted into a physically submissive role and getting a taste of vulnerability. The flipside is the 'sprouted' women gaining a new physical confidence, which, through protest, begins to translate into a global political shift towards the new feminine.

The granular details of this are excellent: schoolgirls having 'petering parties' when they've reached their new height where they celebrate their silvery sprout marks; there's new fashion, architecture and sex toys for these powerful women; who are instructed to be very careful around the 'little boys' that surround them. 

The play's thesis is that the male political and cultural dominance is almost entirely a result of men being (on average) physically stronger and taller than women is simplifying things a bit - but I think it's a valid argument. After all, common historical arguments for why the patriarchy came about tend to centre around women being weakened (and often killed) by pregnancy and childbirth before modern medicine, combined with masculine strength being an asset in agriculture and war. Granted, modern society values flexibility and communication skills over bulging biceps, but I think Nine Foot Nine hits the bullseye when it comes to the psychological impact upon men and women of this dramatic physical inversion.

Sadly, while it gets all that right, Nine Foot Nine isn't a particularly good play. My primary disappointment was that absolutely nothing was done to visually suggest that the female characters had become larger than the men. I know that this is a fringe production created with limited means, but leaving it entirely up to the audience's imagination is a theatrical cop out and siphons away much of the core idea's oomph. As far as I could tell there's not even a performative shift in body language after the characters have grown. For example, there are scenes where the father Nate has pitched rows with his gigantic wife and daughter in which you'd expect to see him intimidated by their size, but it's played as if everything is completely normal.

The core family drama is further impacted by the jumbled chronology, which ends up confusing more than contributing and leaves the audience scrambling to catch up with what's going on with the characters. Along the way character development falls through the cracks: Cara's abandonment of her family is technically justified but isn't at all emotionally resonant and Nate's sudden collapse into depressed alcoholism pretty much comes out of nowhere.

Compounding that is that the individual performances are nothing to write home about. Best of the bunch is Natalie Kimmerling, whose progression through childhood and adolescence in this new world is nicely conveyed. Conversely, Paul O'Dea and Alexandra James have no chemistry with one another and neither character seems to evolve over the course of the show, despite the huge changes taking place in their lives.

I can't deny the ambition, intelligence and boldness of the core concept, but as it currently stands Nine Foot Nine is, at best, an interesting failed experiment. 

Nine Foot Nine is at The Bunker as part of the BREAKING OUT festival until 7 July. Tickets here.

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