Camilla Whitehill, who conceived the storytelling project On the Crest of a Wave with the new writing-focused Longsight Theatre, is no stranger to Litro; last year, we reviewed her one-woman play Where Do Little Birds Go? at the Old Red Lion Theatre, which we described as “packing a hell of a punch”. Her follow-up at the VAULT Festival is a more meditative affair and decidedly different in style. Where Little Birds was an impeccably rehearsed monologue, On the Crest of a Wave is more off-hand and less polished in style, a charming, rambling seaside storybook that shares its narrative duties among its four adept performers. Narrated by the playwright herself, the piece takes as its starting point a mysterious photograph of Whitehill’s grandmother, Valerie, who died when her father was ten. Why, she asks, does her father never talk about her?
The eternal risk with these kinds of personal narratives is that it should be more interesting for the writer than it should be for us: to truly resonate with the audience, they need to hit upon a universal truth. Fortunately, as the performance continues, Whitehill does just that. With the aid of musical comedian Luke Courtier, stand-up Kat Bond and Longsight’s co-artistic director Stephen Myott-Meadows – all dressed in striped retro swimming costumes that, they say, “cost £20 on eBay” – we are transported across time and space, from an HP Sauce factory in 1946 Birmingham to the 1959 award ceremony of “Miss Preston” to a comic fairytale in which two roses search for a mythical creature that lives on what’s known as Greasy Feather Island. On the Crest of a Wave is entirely sincere and refreshingly uncynical, a joyous affirmation of storytelling itself and a paean to the untold ways our lives have been shaped by those who died before we were born.
While Whitehill has long been on Litro‘s radar, Soho Theatre Young Writers’ Programme alumnus and youth worker Nathan Lucky Wood – the writer of the taut three-hander A Haunting, about a 15-year-old’s online conversations with an inscrutable stranger – is new to us. On the basis of the play, however, Wood is not just firmly on our radar; he at the very centre of the detected range. Why? Because the riveting, mesmerising A Haunting is without a doubt the highlight of the 2017 VAULT Festival to date. Many of those works in the growing genre of the “internet play” exhibit certain tiresome mannerisms: the tendency to congratulate themselves on the topicaility of their themes (James Graham’s Privacy); the use of kinetic staging and loving visual approximation as a mask for the emotional hollowness of the writing (Teh Internet is Serious Business). A Haunting exhibits none of these faults, nor does it fall into any of the other traps of new writing, such as forced lyricism. Instead, A Haunting is straight-out, stripped-to-the-bone, compulsive storytelling: it hooks you in and it never lets go.
The play, which transfers to the VAULTs after a successful run at the King’s Head, tells the story of the 15-year-old Mark (Roly Botha) who spends his nights playing Xbox and speaking online to a mysterious stranger (voiced by Jake Curran), whose name is never mentioned but who is described in the script as Ghost. We’re not sure precisely what their relationship is, nor the nature of the stranger’s agenda. At first, we think he might be a political radical, ranting to Mark about “late capitalism” and the dangers of advertising in a convincing facsimile of the kind of incoherent self-education gleaned from fake news sites and forums. Then, as they carry out a lesbian role-play in which they pretend to be two boarding school pupils, we think that he might be a pervert. When, however, “Ghost” insists on a role-play in which he and Mark are simply cooking spaghetti bolognese and sitting down for dinner, we wonder whether he might simply be a lonely man who has never had a family and is simply looking for connection. Is he a disabled recluse, maybe? Where is he conducting his conversations from? Why Mark, of all people? Does he have any connection to him? Are they ever going to meet? While this is going on, we also see a harried advertising executive (Izabella Urbanowicz) who is tasked with rebranding the powdered milk drink Complan. We don’t know, yet, how these narratives will come together – but, sure enough, they do and with a pay-off that is huge.
A Haunting is an enthralling, assured and absolutely absorbing play that deserves to be seen: it is not just better than most new writing but better than most full productions full-stop. What’s more – if young Mr Wood does not mind our offering him some commissioning advice – a 45-minute condensed version would make an excellent fit for the Afternoon Drama slot on BBC Radio 4.
Finally there is ANDRODES, an intoxicating audio-visual experience by electronic musician Helen Sartory, a multitalented musician who has previously played violin with the Collaborative Orchestra. As soon as we enter the Cavern, we can see that Sartory has a mastery of the cyberpunk futurist aesthetic. This is Syd Mead; this is Snow Crash; this the 3D, immersive, digital tomorrow. Behind an LED-illuminated console and a screen displaying CGI Blade Runner cityscapes and production-line androids stands the master of ceremonies herself, an eye-popping presence wearing an android-like silver suit and encased completely in a helmet with a laser-cut illuminated acrylic visor fitted with lights that go on in time with the music. And what music, too: from lush, plaintive vocoder to gut-punch visceral pulsations. A great deal of care has clearly gone into Sartory’s persona: she has created an entire musical universe, turning the Cavern of the VAULTs into a World’s Fair of futurist wonder. One of the most vigorous futurist debates is that of the “rise of the machines”: when and whether singular super-intelligent robots will one day conquer the world, and whether this is something to be feared. Helen Sartory’s ANDRODES persona is one robot that deserves to conquer the world.