Friday, November 16, 2018

Review: 'Thirteen Cycles' at the Rosemary Branch, 15th November 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

I'm in awe of good improvisational comedy. It's thrilling watching performers probe the possibilities of a new story, gradually filling out the details of rough character sketches and mutually teasing out themes. It's a highwire act that can easily go wrong (and boy have I seen it go wrong...) but when it works it's like you're right in the midst of the creative process - a magical feeling.

Katy Schutte and Chris Mead have this magic in spades. They're expert, seasoned improvisational performers - and Thirteen Cycles gives them ample space to show off their talents. The theme is science fiction, with the seed of the story being locations contributed by the audience. Though there's no audience participation beyond the opening minutes, the whole thing kicks off when someone yells out "spaceship repair". 

Very quickly we're in the middle of a grimy yet futuristic workshop as a grandfather and grandson mechanics bicker amongst each other as they fix up a classic spaceship. This gradually expands into a dystopia involving a throat-stabbing rebellion, a snooty elite showing off their organic pet cats and some rather grisly methods of execution.

Each show is unique, and they promise a variety of inspirations from Star Wars to Solaris. That said, the show I saw demonstrated the distances that Schutte & Mead were prepared to go. Though it's basically a comedy show there are serious scenes and a few genuinely emotional moments. The pair quickly devices extremely likeable characters and then cruelly dispose of them. As this happens you sense a kind of emotional G-Force - the more serious it gets the more it becomes difficult to change gears towards comedy.

The result is a story that's unfinished, that has a few frayed edges and a couple of narrative dead ends - but with real imagination and heart. Schutte and Mead even weave in recurring dramatic motifs and symbolism - which is like, next level improv.

Despite all this, there is one big element of the show that doesn't really work. Much is made in the promotional literature of the use of live projection mapping and score by Lemon Jelly's Fred Deakin. Projection mapping means, essentially, that an object on stage can have a texture overlaid on at any time. Theoretically, this should allow the show to visualise whatever situation the actors decide to create, with Deakin improvising along with the actors.

Well, either it didn't work properly on the night I went or it just doesn't work well at all, but what it amounted to was a couple of apparently random patterns projected on the wall that didn't seem to have any relation to the scene in question. Live projection mapping to improvised theatre is no doubt incredibly difficult, both technically and creatively and the show falls short of its stated ambitions by quite some way.

Plus - and I hate to say this as a long-time fan of Lemon Jelly - the live score soundtrack wasn't that great. There was a lot of low rumbling synths accompanying scenes but it felt like ambient noise more than an actual score. Maybe this was just a bad night for it. 

Thirteen Cycles is undeniably entertaining improvisational theatre - Schutte and Meade are almost annoyingly good at what they do. I laughed a hell of a lot. Still, it doesn't quite live up to its marketing. Go expecting laughs rather than technical wizardry.

Thirteen Cycles is at the Rosemary Branch until 29th November. Tickets here.

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