views from the gods

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Lovesong of the Electric Bear
Above the Arts
12th November 2015

★★★★☆

Ian Hallard and Bryan Pilkington as Alan and Porgy

Photography © Scott Rylander

Following on from a successful run at The Hope, the Islington venue's artistic director Matthew Parker has taken Lovesong of the Electric Bear to the West End location of Above the Arts to reach a wider audience. And some of the same audience again, it turns out. With so many shows opening in London all the time, it's rare that I find time to catch anything more than once, but Lovesong is so spectacular, funny, well-crafted and above all, poignant, that it easily merits a second viewing. Parker may not have the big budget of 2014 movie The Imitation Game, however in staging Snoo Wilson's play about the life of Alan Turing, he's shown that film studio special effects just aren't necessary when you have charm and compassion in spades. Parts of the story are real, parts of it fictionalised, but throughout the production the key message is love. What should have been Turing's freedom to be with the man he wanted, and the unwavering, heartbreakingly honest bond between Alan (Ian Hallard) and his teddy bear, Porgy (Bryan Pilkington).

It often feels like the action is controlled by Porgy, as the giant bear spins characters on- and off-stage, and tries to skip over some of the more painful moments of his master's life, even flushing one of Alan's schoolboy tormentors (William Hartley) out of the way. However as much as he tries to shortcut these difficult memories, he's only ever trying to play for time, to delay the ending over which he has no say, and some darker scenes do unfold in front of us despite Porgy's best attempts to protect Alan. We see Alan's imagined nightmares, as well as his very real medical "treatment", which in some respects is far more ghastly than anything that could be dreamt up.

The judge (Chris Levene) who sentences Alan is played as a grotesque, and the punishment is so shockingly barbaric, it doesn't immediately hit you that whilst some parts of the script are plucked out of pure fantasy, our country did indeed once try to "cure" homosexuality. As Alan descends into a deep depression, it finally hits us that what we're witnessing is indeed part of our past, and a sobering reminder that the freedoms we enjoy are a relatively modern invention. Whilst the Alan portrayed to us lacks emotional maturity, that isn't a crime and we're left with an overwhelming sense of unfairness. This isn't just a piece of theatre that moves us for entertainment's sake, it reminds us that we must never stand by as others have their rights stripped from them.

Alan's would-be wife Joan (Laura Harling) is plucked out of fantasy, appearing in front of us as the ideal woman, free of preconceptions and ready to become whoever Alan wants her to be. However, there's an inherent problem there - her gender. When we meet Arnold (Levene), he too arrives as an ethereal being, in some ways mirroring Joan's arrival. Yet with Porgy's wild apprehension, we know he is no welcome dream, rather the trigger for Porgy's worst fears to realise themselves.

There have been some minor changes since the production's first run, mainly out of necessity due to the different space, but some of the delivery too has been tweaked. It does feel like some of the comedy has been overemphasised, with not only the judge somewhat overblown, but Helen Evans and Hartley's portrayal of Alan's parents also feeling less fleshed out than they could be. The supporting cast power through a vast array of characters and it does feel like a minor and perhaps undeserved niggle, especially given that the very tender dynamic between Alan and Porgy remains and that's what makes this the wonderful piece that it is. Zoe Hurwitz's design and Tom Kitney's lighting are both beautiful and whimsical, complementing this clear display of emotion.

It's probably too greedy to ask for a third run of Lovesong of the Electric Bear (although we are secretly keeping fingers and toes crossed). What we probably can ask for is to see more of Parker's ideas. I don't know about you, but I'm certainly planning on seeing more of what he's doing over at The Hope.

Lovesong of the Electric Bear opened on 4th November and runs until 21st November 2015 at Above the Arts.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)



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