views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Lovesong of the Electric Bear
The Hope Theatre
27th February 2015

★★★★★

Ian Hallard and Bryan Pilkington as Alan Turing and Porgy

Photography © Scott Rylander

Let's be honest, when you hear a play features a crying, talking, sleeping, walking teddy bear as a central character, well, there's a temptation not to take it seriously. However, Snoo Wilson's decision to put Alan Turing's treasured bear at the heart of his tale about the famous code-breaker is remarkably astute, as Turing's companion and anchor becomes ours too. You may not have a lot in common with the main protagonist (we're not all persecuted homosexual geniuses living in the 40s after all) but everyone knows what it's like to have a favourite toy. It's one of the first bonds we make as children, and it evokes an immediate sense of nostalgia and warmth.

Throughout Lovesong of the Electric Bear, we see Porgy (Bryan Pilkington) waddling around after his master, Alan (Ian Hallard), his movements deliberately jerky. There's a temptation to break all forms of theatre etiquette, run on stage and give him a cuddle. (Don't though - not cool.) Porgy interupts Alan in his final moments, and shows him a flashback of everything that's happened so far, from Alan's childhood right up to the defining moments of his career and love life. We see his parents (Diane Beck and William Hartley) fail to understand him, the woman who he thinks he can be with (Laura Harling) and the man he actually wants to be with (Chris Levens). Moments of genius, heartache, betrayal - there's a lot packed into two hours.

Putting Porgy right at the heart of his tale opens up Turing's story to a far wider audience than just gay rights activists and Benedict Cumberbatch fans. So much happens, but Porgy is always there, always reassuringly in scene, taking on a role himself and making us feel that no matter how baffling things get, he'll be there. Porgy is more than just our navigator through this fast-paced script, he utterly adores Alan, and this unwavering fidelity makes the inevitable conclusion all the more heartbreaking.

It's hard to conceive that a teddy bear in a slinky dress during the can-can and a naked man being humiliated by a solider are scenes from the same play. The plot is bewildering, moves quickly and often makes you feel as if you're on a drug-fuelled trip. The tone moves back and forth from joyful to serious and then back again startlingly fast, but importantly, this constant change of sentiment never feels artificial. The point is that Turing led a fascinating life and this couldn't be a mundane, flat piece to do justice to his story - if you feel caught up in some bizarre dream, well, that's how it should be and director Matthew Parker makes every scene shine.

Bryan Pilkington as Porgy

Photography © Scott Rylander

The visuals are simply stunning. This isn't just any old venue, it's Parker's stomping ground, and he fully utilises the space in ways I haven't thought possible. As the artistic director for The Hope as well as the director for Lovesong, you can tell Parker has been bursting with ideas for some time now, just waiting for his opportunity to unleash them in a delightful and chaotic explosion of sight and sound. The actors don't just run around on stage, but dart behind the audience, appear from dark corners unexpectedly, cartwheel into our line of vision and climb up and down the walls. It's easily the most gorgeous off-West End play we've seen... well... ever.

It may not be intended to be immersive, but you feel hooked by the action and captivated by the sheer amount of detail poured into the design by Zoe Hurwitz. Tom Kitney's striking lighting design also complements Parker's unfaltering gift for movement, and the result is truly mesmerising. The downside is that to pull all this off, the audience do need to be a touch more intimate than perhaps they'd like, but you forgive that.

This isn't solely a history lesson, although we do see Turing's importance to the war, and also how homosexuality was previously treated as a crime, punishable by being locked up. But the reason it resonates so much is because those facts are part of the background, rather than the focus of the piece - it's a giddy ride through the life of one man, and his failure to connect with society - he doesn't seem to fit in anywhere and that's what this play is really about. Quite simply, it's the tale of one lost soul who ultimately ends his life despite having so much to offer, a damning reminder that we could all seek to be more tolerant of those around us no matter how strangely they may come across.

Some companies feel restricted by black box theatres, and just don't attempt that much. A handful of props, maybe a costume change or two. But with a venue like this, you don't have to be unambitious - not only is this a fantastic production in its own right, it's an advertisement that the fringe is capable of thinking big and being big. Sometimes this play is so visually hypnotic that the emotion is overwhelmed by the sheer style, but Lovesong of the Electric Bear is staggeringly beautiful, tender and thoughtful.

Lovesong of the Electric Bear ran from 24th February to 21st March 2015 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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