VAULT Festival 2017: Crocodiles and Chemsex (1/2/17)
The VAULT Festival continues with its second week, bringing us even more off kilter, fringe works. Today, we caught surreal family drama Crocodile where baby blues get more than a little out of hand, and Happy, a musical about chemsex, addiction and depression.
Crocodile by Joyous Gard
In the grand literary tradition of bizarre transformations from the likes of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Joyous Gard carries on that torch with Crocodile. Crocodile follows new parents Alan (co-founder Joe Eyre, also the writer of Crocodile) and Jane (Rhiannon Sommers), who have, beyond all logic, given birth to a baby crocodile, whom they christen Sarah.
Surprisingly, much of Crocodile doesn’t actually focus on the fact that Sarah is a crocodile, instead touching on a wide range of other issues pertaining to family and parenting. Split across two monologues, we’re first introduced to Alan, who though shocked, takes an immediate liking to Sarah and develops a vicious paternal instinct. Sarah’s condition is seen not as a species type deficiency, but merely a very normal difference, seen as ‘boring’ by other children or unfit for school. Joe Eyre switches between playing the loving father who wants only the best for his daughter, and a creepy, dead-eyed predator hell-bent on destroying anything that might be deemed a slight against her. Eyre’s movements are precise, sudden and calculated, his line delivery perfectly suited to his graphic, metaphorical language, so that the dark, unexpected humour comes through even more. There’s a method to his madness, and it pays off in spades when Eyre ends his monologue with an impressive Jekyll/Hyde type see-saw performance that sends chills down your spine.
The second half of Crocodile features Rhiannon Sommers as Alan’s counterpart, following in the weeks after Alan’s monologue. Sommers’ monologue is much shorter than Eyre’s, and after Eyre’s electrifying performance, feels almost like an afterthought at first, and like a separate piece tacked on. Yet as her words go on, she reveals a different side to the story, that Alan may have been an abusive husband, that she did love her daughter, and acts as a kind of white mirror to Alan. There are no monstrous metamorphoses here, only love and motherhood, in contrast to the bloodthirsty, animal rage that possesses Alan. Sommers’ performance is a little less dramatic and lacks the darkly comic lines Eyre has, but there is a quiet strength to it that finishes off Crocodile nicely, making it more than merely a dark fairytale to a commentary on relationships, both as parent to child and between parents.
Is Alan a were-beast of some sort? Did Jane really give birth to a crocodile? Whether metaphorical or literal, none of it really matters, as the heart of Crocodile keeps its focus firmly on family issues and the dark side of parenthood, and leaves a surprising amount of impact for its ridiculous premise, which serves as a wonderful extended image that suggests a primal, dark truth about the negative change a child brings to a family. With strong performances and a deeply affecting script that left me apprehensive and afraid of parenthood, this cautionary tale is almost certainly a highlight of the Festival, and one you should catch.
Happy by Quite Nice Theatre
QN Theatre started off with humble beginnings in Reading before becoming an award-winning company with their smash hit Snakes! The Musical (a parody of Snakes On A Plane) at various Fringe Festivals. Now, tinged with the desolate landscape of post West End fame (read: the basement of Leicester Square Theatre), self-proclaimed ‘medium-sized’ artistic director Thom Sellwood has crafted an all new musical that will leave you in a state that’s anything but Happy.
Happy is one of the rare times you’ll find yourself watching a musical that’s about the London chemsex scene and depression. Framed as a musical in progress, Happy constructs utilises the device of a play within a play that ends up an epic disaster. Thom’s ‘script’ is incomplete and his conduct ‘unprofessional’: he ropes in friend Carrie Marx to replace a performer at the last minute, sneaks off in the middle of song numbers to shoot up on crystal meth, and at one point, even attempts to goad the newly sober Carrie into drinking again. Thom is an utter prick, and it’s impossible to see the piece reach any kind of happy resolution (it doesn’t). Thom plays this role to aplomb, and the raw energy and complete commitment to the role mesmerising to see, akin to a car crash in slow motion, and Carrie’s rising frustration and nerves equally terrifying to watch, discomforting and heart wrenching.
Happy’s strengths lie in its ability to go to extremely dark and uncomfortable places, brought to greater heights by the confessional, ‘authentic’ nature of the script. Thom frequently interrupts the narrative of a man who meets a hookup for chemsex with hints at the ‘real lives’ of both him and Carrie. At one point when Thom dashes out of the theatre in a meth-fuelled stupor, Carrie takes over the stage by herself and talks about her recovery from alcoholism, a segment that really resonated with talk about the void that’s always within you, that alcohol and other drugs cure temporarily, and therapy tries to. Sometimes, it’s all you can do to try, even when it seems like it’s not working.
It’s also easy to see why QD Theatre chose to go with a musical genre – the songs are unique and extremely well performed by Marx, from an electronic piece about gay social app Grindr sampling the Skype ringtone to the devastating ‘Fine’, which includes Thom repeating the lines ‘black on gray on black on gray on black’, a possible metaphor for the wall addiction and depression one builds up around one’s self. This song also leads Thom to rant about the loss of linguistic currency the word has, and rave a little about the crushing effects of addiction and unhappiness it’s ultimately left him with.
Happy is the darkest possible timeline Thom can experience post-fame, and offers no solutions, only a depiction of the potential struggle to find the faintest glimmer of hope in sex, drugs and a last-ditch follow-up to a success. At the beginning of the piece, Thom points to the black walls of the theatre and asks the audience to picture a window with a view of the East London skyline, but perhaps at night, when it’s too dark to see much. In spite of the seemingly impenetrable and the endless void Happy keeps on about, it is by virtue of having these issues performed in theatre that makes it easier to get by, that the search for happiness (or un-sadness) is universal. Happy forces audiences to confront these dark parts of our psyche head on, and is the kind of Fringe performance that really works: luring audiences in with a light start before chewing them up and leaving them quite changed by the end of it.
We’ll be covering more shows over the week and the weeks to come, so keep your eyes peeled for even more reviews!