views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Space
20th August 2014


Joni-Rae Carrack and one of the puppets

Photography provided by Sort of Theatre

When it comes to choosing a getaway destination, a lot of people look for sand, sea and surf. Buttons is a show about what Dana Segal and Joni-Rae Carrack did on their holiday, but I should point out that they chose to fly to Auschwitz. It's not a drunken Brits abroad comedy, rather it's a highly emotional and personal tale. Segal herself - as she points out right at the very beginning - is a Jew, and this journey allowed her the opportunity to find out more about what her family went through during the war. Nearly 70 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, Buttons is an ambitious show by fledgeling company Sort of Theatre which explores memory, family and friendship through live performance and some quite charming puppetry.

There's a distinctly scripted unscripted style to the piece, which feels like it was originally devised by the pair and then sharpened up - the deliberately awkward pauses are very similar to those in Screwtop Theatre's Photograph. Segal and Carrack tell us about mundane little details like trying to figure out what to pack, the café where they feasted on pierogi during their trip - oh, and then they hit us with stories of the Holocaust. It's an intentionally jarring shift in tone, highlighting just how extraordinary and big the stories they want to tell are.

The main problem though is not that the stories are too big for the women, but that the venue itself is also too big. Maybe they wanted to be overwhelmed by the space in the same way the stories themselves are overwhelming, but I don't think that's necessarily true. Even if it is, it doesn't really work. Buttons would be much better suited to a smaller venue - maybe The Etcetera or even the Morris Space at Park Theatre. It's an intimate little piece where our protagonists share their musings on a horrific chapter in history using teeny tiny puppets and that requires a small crowd.

Carrack is a skilful puppeteer, but if she's going to use an incredibly small child puppet, she needs her audience to be closer. I felt moved by the boy hiding in the attic - as Carrack manipulated the puppet with its little button face and we were told of how he was up there for so long he had to re-learn how to walk, my heart broke. If we were that bit nearer to the action, I think the impact of this scene could have been even stronger. The Space is a fantastic venue, but its gorgeous high ceilings and grand arches are a bit too much on this occasion. Somewhere where the audience has to cram in and almost sit on top of each other would actually be perfect.

Joni-Rae Carrack and Dana Segal

Photography provided by Sort of Theatre

I say that because the girls clearly want us to share an experience. They pass around a bag of chocolate buttons at the end, getting us all in the audience to acknowledge our neighbours and also to accept a bit of sugary comfort after, let's face it, being sucker-punched in the stomach by some desperately sad anecdotes. When Segal and Carrack first stumble into the venue, they're endearingly disorganised and it doesn't set us up for the powerful words that follow over the course of the 60 minutes. Nothing like a bit of Cadbury's to soothe the soul and well, we've all earned it.

Although projections themselves are not uncommon in fringe theatre, I must confess it's the first time I've seen an old-school OHP used. Carrack carefully places buttons on the plate, with the crude projected silhouettes representing people. It's simple, but it's a really clever and effective idea. At one point, Carrack blends herself with the light to convey the horror of being just a number in a concentration camp. The repeated use of buttons as faces throughout conveys the anonymity and dehumanisation of the many many people who suffered in the Holocaust.

As for Segal, she is the heart of this show using words rather than puppets to convey her intense feelings of - well, mainly love, I guess. She's struck by the enormity of what happened and she's devastated by it, but at the core of this piece of storytelling we see Segal's gratitude that her family survived and she came to be. She's full of love for her grandparents and for the others who survived alongside them - and the ones who didn't. There's a startling poignancy and tenderness to Buttons.

I'm not sure where Segal and Carrack go from this - how do you follow up from the Holocaust? - but they're certainly a great team. As I said, Buttons feels faux-unscripted, but the dynamic between the two women seems genuine and they balance each out very well. There's nothing sort of about Sort of Theatre, this is definitely theatre and it's the good kind. A brave, funny and heart-wrenching show that will make you want to hug the first person you see afterwards, whether they like it or not.

Buttons opened on 19th August and runs until 23rd August 2014 at The Space.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)

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