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Cycles of the Southern Wild
The Blue Elephant Theatre
5th November 2014

★★★★☆

Publicity image for Cycles of the Southern Wild

Photography © Manos Fotiou

I bloomin' love a good travelogue, me. Whether it's Palin piddling about between the poles, Tim Moore going round London as if it was a Monopoly board or even John Steinbeck making most of it up in Travels with Charley, I'm there. There's something about setting yourself a challenge and then sticking to it no matter what that I find quite special, perhaps because my equivalent of going around the world in 80 days is gathering up enough effort to go to the shops and buy cheese. These tales encapsulate the human spirit - courage in the face of adversity, triumph against all odds. And as Cat Gerrard spells out pre-show, this is certainly a story about adversity.

Nicking its name from the 2012 awards magnet Beasts of the Southern Wild (for reasons that become clear as the show unfolds), it's an ostensibly simple real-life account of Gerrard's attempts to cycle from Florida across America with a pal. Left in a dark place following the death of her grandmother, Gerrard - like a woman possessed - one day just ups and leaves, picking up her cycling buddy on the way and makes for the Sunshine state. There she almost immediately suffers Achilles tendonitis, has trouble in the desert and makes a friend in New Orleans.

But there's also much more to it than that, obviously, as our hero weaves in creation myths and folk tales elegantly, in an almost Neil Gaimanesque fashion. Rather than the narrative lurching from fiction to reality, it's one smooth work with slight but understandable digression falling through and giving way to a brand new yarn. Whether that be Native American stories of the World Turtle (no, not Great A'Tuin, but that's definitely where Pratchett nicked his idea from) that bookend the piece, a fisher leading animals to find summer or an all-too-personal, utterly heartbreaking story of a refugee and her lost love. And not satisfied with jamming all of that into 75 minutes, Gerrard also gives us a jazzy number when we're in New Orleans and a haunting rendition of Will ye Go, Lassie, Go? (Wild Mountain Thyme) that sends shivers down the spine.

Publicity image for Cycles of the Southern Wild

Photography © Manos Fotiou

The whole thing, as it should be, is contemplative yet welcoming. The audience's lights never really go down - not fully until the aforementioned folk song for a bit of spotlighting, creating a bonhomie only fostered further by Gerrard's on-stage warm-ups and a little bit of call-and-response. Charming doesn't do Gerrard the person justice and as a storyteller she's frankly mesmerising. While only laugh-out-loud funny in a couple of instances it's nevertheless constantly engaging and heartfelt, with Gerrard's gran becoming a welcome supporting character as the narrator cycles through pain both literal and metaphorical.

Then there's the music. Belinda Sherlock is credited as "percussionist" however that really should be "miracle worker" as the sounds she gets out of the bike (yes, you read that right) are nothing short of baffling. I know some are run through machines but many are not, and they all create the necessary atmosphere, whether that be the Big Easy or outer space. She's also part of the action, interacting with Gerrard and reacting to events in her own right with some marvellous facial expressions.

There are a few stumbles here and there, where Gerrard ever-so-briefly pauses. There are also a few repetitions in descriptions that don't seem to be intentional, more that the storyteller has forgotten her place slightly and needs time to recalibrate - the whiteness of the moon was one instance. And it's a shame when it does happen, as otherwise the rhythm of the piece is almost akin to beat poetry given the unusual backing.

All we have here are two women, a bike and a story told entirely on Gerrard's terms. Yet it's as captivating, exciting and impressive as any full-scale, properly done Shakespeare adaptation. At 75 minutes, it's perhaps a bit too brief and, slips aside, if that's the worst thing I can say about it, they must be doing something right. Cycles of the Southern Wild is a tale that could not have been delivered in any other way and it is simply what fringe theatre is all about.

Cycles of the Southern Wild opened on 4th November and runs until 8th November 2014 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)



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