views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Bucket List
Battersea Arts Centre
15th February 2017

★★★☆☆

The ensemble of Bucket List

Photography © Alex Brenner

10 years old this year, Theatre Ad Infinitum (led by co-Artistic Directors George Mann and Nir Paldi) are following in the footsteps of critically lauded physical theatre ensembles like Kneehigh and Complicité that are able to command a devoted fan base willing to follow them on any expedition into the theatrical unknown. Previous productions such as Translunar Paradise, Ballad of the Burning Star and Light were minor key masterpieces that carefully interwove a clear artistic vision with a rigorously choreographed physicality. Eschewing naturalism for a more innovative experimental approach, Theatre Ad Infinitum have built their reputation on presenting familiar stories from strangely unfamiliar angles.

It comes as no surprise that Bucket List continues this approach, but for the first time it appears that the company have struggled to wrestle the stories into a manageable shape. Previous work contained big ideas wrapped around small stories; each theme reduced to its essence to create an intimate moment of pure theatre. However this production is bursting at the seams with its ideas and it is telling that it noticeably overran its advertised running time on press night. Bucket List is a geopolitical play; it is about NAFTA, it is about globalisation and protest, it is about the subjugation of women in both the personal and the political. Created in close collaboration with Vicky Araico Casas, the narrative hums with the veracity of personal experience and it does not feel like outside-in storytelling; even with the artifice of the production, the stories on stage ring true.

In bringing it to life, Paldi has employed the tropes of revenge fantasy; we are in Death Wish, Kill Bill or Dead Man's Shoes territory. Milagros (Tamsin Clarke) is the heroic centre who circumstance pushes into a redemption quest. Following the murder of her mother, she is left a Mexican orphan growing up in the NAFTA-enabled border towns. We are in a 21st century wild west, lawless places, and Milagros is bent on dispensing the only form of justice that really works. The extent to which Milagros' quest is a fever dream of a girl poisoned by the - literal or metaphorical - toxic nature of her surroundings is an open question. What is not in question is the talent of an ensemble cast that work freshness into familiar ideas; the fluid, dance-inflected movement means scenes rarely break and the pace accelerates alongside the increasingly frenetic nature of Milagros' plans.

The main problem is that the play sets itself too much to do, and it stretches too thinly in order to do it. The revenge fantasy gives the play a repetitive cyclical tone, and attempts to open the play out only ends up throwing more ideas into the pot. For instance the entire chess playing thread seems included only to enable a somewhat unsuccessful transition into the United States and critically distracts the story at the point it is building towards the finale. Within the play there is clearly a tight drama set in this border town; Milagros' mother and the other factory workers are fascinating, and become fully realised creations through the hard work of the talented ensemble cast (Charli Dubery, Luisa Guerreiro, Orian Michaeli, Deborah Pugh and Shamira Turner). They are never just caricatures, and it would have been great to have been given a touch more insight into their lives rather than focussing so singularly on Milagros' story.

Still I continue to applaud the high-risk approach to theatre making that Theatre Ad Infinitum employ. It has given them the right to fail, and if Bucket List is disappointing it is only because of how high they have risen as a company. This may not match their previous productions, but I'd still much rather be there than in the West End watching yet another attempt to breathe life into Noël Coward.

Bucket List opened on 13th February 2017 and runs until 4th March at the Battersea Arts Centre.

Nearest tube station: Clapham Junction (Overground)



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