views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Handle With Care
Urban Locker
15th June 2016

★★★★☆

Terry O'Donovan as the Storage Worker

Photography © Justin Jones

For many people, moving to London is a sure-fire way to free themselves of the natural human desire to accumulate junk. When you don't have anywhere to put it, hanging onto pointless clutter becomes harder. Sticking a shoebox of old bits and pieces in the attic is fine if you have an attic, but when you pretty much live in a shoebox yourself, finally the bin becomes a plausible option for most. In Handle With Care however, Zoe (Amy Dolan) just can't bring herself to throw anything out, with self-storage coming to the rescue. Her hoarding begins with a few old tatty possessions belonging to her desperately missed brother Mikolas (Benjamin Humphrey), and gradually grows into something less manageable. As her collection increases, her inner fragility becomes more evident.

Created by Daphne Attias, Terry O'Donovan and Chloe Moss, Handle With Care is a site-specific promenade production, set in various self-storage warehouses. Their protagonist's inability to free herself of physical possessions and her tendency to compartmentalise memories work exceptionally well with the setting. (Zoe both metaphorically and literally puts things into boxes, see what they did there?) The venue for the London part of the tour, Urban Locker, has lots of differently sized storage units ranging from tiny cupboards which hide away a few thoughts to big room-sized spaces which house Zoe's more defining moments.

As we move through Zoe's life, designer Jenny Hayton marks the different decades with the sort of dated outfits that wouldn't surprise me if they had been liberated from a long-abandoned self-storage unit during rehearsals. If the clothing wasn't obvious enough (the 1980s with their bold colours and wide headbands are particularly hard to miss), Zoe pauses to write the year on the door as she steps forward in time, with Yaniv Fridel and JP Thwaites choosing music very representative of each period to further underline the date. There's an attention to detail in Hayton's props too, with the phones becoming smaller and smarter as we get closer to the present day.

Despite this show being actually specific to several sites, rather than just one, if feels like this particular venue has shaped the plot rather than the plot having adapted to the space available. The way the idea and the venue mesh together perfectly makes this not just a piece of bog-standard theatre but a decidedly unique experience. With that said, there are times when the ambiguity of the plot wears thin and it seems like the substance of the play has been overlooked in favour of its framing. Whilst we don't need to know the finer details of why Mikolas doesn't come home, we want a stronger, more satisfying conclusion. It largely works in the moment, however the questions that we try to put aside refuse to go away after the show, with our reflections detracting somewhat from the poignancy of the piece.

The ensemble of Handle With Care

Photography © Justin Jones

As much as I think promenade and immersive should always be friends, the majority of moments we witness in Handle With Care are very intimate ones which would be spoiled if we actually became part of them. When Zoe rows with her first proper boyfriend, Daniel (Elan James), they both reveal a certain insecurity that wouldn't naturally come out with a "real" audience surrounding them. Similarly, the civil yet regretful exchange with subsequent partner Simon (Stephen Henry) is one that would be kept back for a private moment. Director Attias shows restraint for the genre, keeping us in the background not out of an unwillingness to let us play, but for the benefit of the story's development.

We almost become part of the furniture, with the characters frequently sitting on top of us or draping items on us. The actors go out of their way to ignore us, which can be uncomfortable at times - one audience member almost got caught in a steamy clinch from choosing the wrong corner to lean against. Over the course of the 100 minutes, a storage worker (O'Donovan) casually passes us or sits nearby, him a much of a fly on the wall as we are. We're all invisible, with a strange and gripping sense of voyeurism throughout. Cold and hard to read as she is, there's a strong sense of character development as Zoe ages. The transition from the lost party girl (Dolan) to the embarrassing (and still lost) mum-of-one (Rachel Spence) is dealt with very cleverly. The older Zoe is warm and tender as she cajoles her daughter Miki (Maria Ahmed) into following instructions and sharing a few laughs together. Simply put, motherhood has forced her to grow up. Yet there's still a certain detachment in her voice and an occasional throwaway glance that indicate even the mother-daughter bond isn't enough to get her to fully share herself with anyone.

Having three shows with overlapping running times each night is a hugely ambitious move and one which largely pays off. Although there is some unfortunate sound bleed at times, it generally doesn't interfere with the plot and frankly, it was downright impressive our path only crossed with another audience once. Urban Locker is a veritable maze with the careful consideration of the logistics and use of the space very laudable. Rarely does the stage manager and his assistants get a mention in a review, but we take our hats off to Philip Hussey, Richard Irvine and Katy Taylor.

A few niggles with the plot aside, Handle With Care is a well-thought out piece of site specific theatre. Superbly executed, this exploration of grief, mental health and moving on is compelling viewing.

Handle With Care opened on 3rd June and runs until 25th June 2016 at Urban Locker.

Nearest tube station: Old Street (Northern)



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