views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Strawberry Vale and Wayne
Camden People's Theatre
28th July 2014

★★★★★

Jessica Kathryn as Gin

Photography © Shahrzad Vanaki, Francesco Maria Carreri & Richard Barr

I'm not saying that I'm swayed by presentation, but the programme for Strawberry Vale is easily the best designed one I've seen in a long time. It's short, simple, to the point and stylishly embossed with the show's name and indentations which mimic a strawberry itself. This may be the first and only time I see fit to comment on a flyer design, but honestly, Nelson Lai deserves a shout out for setting the tone.

It's a touch of professionalism which hints at something polished to come, and it's such a relief when the show doesn't disappoint. Strawberry Vale, the first of two short pieces running together, follows a young girl called Gin (Jessica Kathryn) who is desperately seeking to get away from her reality. This is a concept which we see frequently, but that's because wanting to run away from your problems is a feeling which we can all identify with. As a child, sometimes you can't take control of a bad situation, all you can do is hope for the best or retreat. Often that escape is a mental one.

The blend of multimedia and live performance is reminiscent of Siro-A, the Japanese group who fuse their acting with technology, however they're rather bonkers and this is rather more poignant and touching. Gin's original journey to Strawberry Vale is a bit like Dorothy being blown away to Oz by the tornado, particularly given how her more colourful self stands out against a world of monochrome animation. There are voiceovers - innocent and childlike - but Emi Tse's wonderful play remains light on dialogue. We focus on the strong visuals and the emotions that Andrea Boccadoro's stunning soundtrack stirs in us, similar to some of the longer, worldless sequences in films such as Spirited Away.

Later on, as Gin looks for a way back, we think of Coraline or even C. S. Lewis's Narnia. There so many influences you could link to this show, but it doesn't stand in the shadow of anything. Strawberry Vale is a piece of fantasy which makes use of animation in a deeply intelligent and innovative way. Gin's loneliness and desire to establish some kind of familial connection is apparent throughout, even when there's little narration to actually explain this. Director Saemi Moon melds the pre-recorded film with Kathryn's live action to create something truly special.

Tommie Grabiec as Bruce Wayne

Photography © Annette Holbourne, Alice Murgia and Richard Barr

Now - in a change of pace - anyone who knows anything about Batman knows that the man is a obvious psychopath. When we first meet Tommie Grabiec in the second short play, Wayne, it's not the actor's physique or clothing that gives away his character. Rather, it's those mad eyes. Imagine Batman at the peak of his vigilante career - now picture him as an older man, unable to do quite so much. Of course he's a mess.

Moon mocks Bruce - she dressed him in a suit jacket and shorts, with a bow tie and plimsolls just for good measure. Grabiec uses everyday objects - such as a Pringles can to imitate a torch. As he relives some of his glory days, Moon makes him into a figure of pity, of ridicule. He relives some of the worst moments of his life - such as losing the second Robin in Sarajevo from the A Death in the Family storyline, here shown as animated movie Batman: Under the Red Hood. And it leaves us laughing at him, rather than empathising with the broken man. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Retires, if you like.

It's rather telling that as Bruce jumps around his living room, he's alone. Alfred presumably is long gone, and there's no one else left to look after him. Wayne is a very different story to Strawberry Vale, but it does have the same inherent sadness. Both pieces are beautiful in their own way, but Moon refuses to give us a stereotypically happy ending. Sometimes that's just not how it pans out. It's frustrating that these two plays are only running for two nights, when together they make up a truly stand-out show which captures the ethos of the Camden Fringe.

Now, it's really dangerous picking a favourite on night one of the festival - it does run for another four weeks, after all - but I strongly suspect Strawberry Vale will end up being one of the best things that I see. There are a lot of comparisons that can be made, but none of which quite fit because this is a highly original and incredibly successful concept.

Strawberry Vale and Wayne ran from 28th to 29th July 2014 at Camden People's Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Warren Street (Northern, Victoria)



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