views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Lion and Unicorn Theatre
23rd August 2018


Publicity image for Whimsy

Photography provided by Scram Collective

I don't think anyone really knows how they would use omnipotence, if given the chance. It's a question few of us are likely to face, though the fact remains that rights, privileges and powers are not evenly distributed. Much of it is governed by our perception of our own potential - the mere feeling of not being entitled is usually enough to scupper whatever it is we want to do, just as an overdeveloped sense of entitlement can lead to someone doing the downright immoral. Scram Collective tackles these issues in Whimsy, a hard-hitting exploration of whether power corrupts.

There are myriad ways to use theatre to discuss issues of empowerment, some better than others. Whimsy takes a clever route by presenting the issue as a social experiment - what if we took a very under-entitled person and gave them all the power they could dream of? The story centres around Aoife (Valerie Isaiah), who finds herself forever apologising, appeasing and accommodating everyone around her - and she's sick of it. One day she is paid a visit from Mask (Sam Claridge), and her situation is reversed. Having had no real power, Aoife now has it all. By employing her helpers Cali (Laura Bentley), Bea (Emily Panes) and Sebastian (Matt Warden), she can turn every situation in her favour. These latter three could be seen as personifications of the different roles society plays in justifying or enabling others' behaviour. Cali embodies the most up-to-date moral standards and the most rounded and informed worldview; Sebastian portrays that section of humanity that is not necessarily well-educated but has an instinctive sense of fairness; Bea then covers those so intent on seeing the good side of everything that they do so at the expense of ethics, becoming complicit in abuse through sheer naivety and willingness to agree.

There is a wonderful bit of role reversal either side of Aoife's transition - as her original self, she is pushed from one helper to the next, commanding no apparent control over her own movement. After the transition, she glides around them at will and leaves them standing. What a beautifully simple yet effective way to portray the change, and one that to an extent mirrors human behaviour - the less authority we carry ourselves with, the more likely we are to be shoved, blocked and bumped into. In the same vein, writer Alex Newport has hit on something extremely intelligent in creating these helper roles - entitled and empowered people really do get others to do things for them - it is both a smart vehicle for representing Aoife's power and a metaphor for real life.

I can't avoid commenting on the casting of Isaiah as Aoife, because it is hugely relevant - director Heather Millar has chosen a young, petite black woman with soft, angelic features as the subject of this grand experiment; almost as near to the antithesis of perceived privilege as you can get. Casting anyone white or male would have rendered the piece purely conceptual; with Isaiah, even though the story obviously exists in a parallel dimension, it makes us notice and warns us to take it seriously and feel it, rather than treating it as something academic to file away for later. Isaiah occupies the role very comfortably, bringing a crucial realism to the production - she carries the transition from relative innocence to omnipotence with ease, and her laughter conveys her state of mania effectively. This role in particular could have easily been overplayed, yet Isaiah navigates it with considerable subtlety.

I was initially unsure about Claridge as both Mask and David - his style felt a bit too literal. After a short while though, I changed my mind completely - his understated approach becomes intriguing, in that he is unconventional in what he brings to the role, but very effective and refreshing in what he achieves. Bentley conveys authority and experience with a healthy cynicism as Cali, by far the most street-wise of the three helpers. Warden and Panes portray the innocence of Sebastian and Bea with childlike enthusiasm, bringing fun and comedy to the production whilst managing to convey the important messages that their roles carry.

Not by accident, it is that aforementioned comedy that makes the piece so hard-hitting - because so much of it is light-hearted, when the inevitable heavy part arrives, it comes as an appropriate shock. Without wishing to provide a spoiler, that heavy moment is an awakening because it is so packed with lessons - by virtue of her new powers, Aoife eventually becomes guilty of the same misjudgements and abuses of position that are normally men’s territory. The message here is that entitlement is not the same as justification, and whilst she can technically have whatever she wants, it doesn't mean she’s within her moral rights to have it, nor that it’s victimless.

There really is just one thing that didn't quite hit the spot, which was that the script felt slightly wordy in places - some of the exchanges during Aoife's dates felt like they could have been tightened. This is by no means a major criticism - the instances were sporadic.

I thoroughly recommend Whimsy - it covers a difficult issue by flipping it on its head, providing an alternative reality where someone else holds disproportionate power, and asks whether it is any better. It is a very clever concept, combining a digestible plot line with clearly-defined characters. It is also brilliantly executed, with a strong cast and intelligent use of the stage. An excellent show that deserves your time.

Whimsy opened on 20th August and runs until 26th August 2018 at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Kentish Town (Northern)

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