Dandelion Heart

Wed 12th – Sat 15th October 2011

reviews

Lise McNally

at 04:00 on 13th Oct 2011

2agrees

1disagrees

Dandelion Heart absolutely epitomises its setting: much like a surreal circus whirling through the air, you have absolutely no idea where it came from, but it is a little bit brilliant, all the same.

Nikki Moss' experimental piece revolves around the inhabitants of a flying circus, a kind of mental safe house. But it's far funnier than it sounds, I promise. Sharp dialogue, deadpan deliveries, and some surprisingly relevant physical theatre make for an entertaining and captivating evening. It's a circus of the mind, where the lights are flickering, the antics dizzying, and absolutely anything goes.

Embracing this ethos is the ring master, the big, bold Benjamin Benjamin (Tom England). Seizing the audience's attention and clutching it to his chest, England maintains an astounding energy throughout the production. His vocal performance is especially impressive, mastering comic timing, chanting song, and dangerous threats with equal aplomb. Plus his rather manic eye/eyebrow manipulation is worth the ticket price in itself.

Holding their own against the sheer massiveness of England's performance, his circus co-habitors August (Immy Gardam) and Boy (Michael Cotton) also deserve praise. Gardam's expressive face and dead-pan delivery offer the audience a welcome and different kind of comedy, while Cotton's Boy is a wide

eyed, puppy-like bundle of adorableness, with a trodden-on air that is truly heartbreaking. Capping this talented and varied circus troupe, the enigmatic Nighttime Tim (James Bloor) almost steals the show without even opening his mouth.

Suddenly dropped into this festoon of figures is Steph (Stephanie Aspin), a beautifully awkward Alice-in-Wonderland type who is the play's first and only touch of normality. Aspin's performance layers a sweetly fragile exterior with an inner world of private anguish, a divide which was masterfully contained. The moment when she finally loses control becomes all the more moving for this quiet preparation; a poignant still point in an otherwise frantic plot.

Precisely what that plot is was sometimes difficult to discern. However, a gorgeous set and ingenious lighting (designed by Nick Gebbett and Joe Hobbs) ensured that, when the plot was obscured, it was always obscured with style. It does work well as a written piece, in fact it's a lovely and strange story, but the plot's journey takes precedence over its destination. Enthusiastic as my review may seem, this certainly isn't a show to suit everyone. As with all surrealist theatre, there will be some who find the unanswered questions and fantastical approach frustrating. Also the pacing did drag a little at times, particularly as the production drew to a close.

That said, if you would like to see something a little more off the wall, and see it beautifully executed, Dandelion Heart is more than worth a visit. Explosively funny and endearingly sad, this is a show which delivers all of the promised escapes, japes, and jokes. Roll up, Roll up.

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Fred Wagner

at 09:46 on 13th Oct 2011

1agrees

1disagrees

Dandelion Heart is an unusual and highly (perhaps self-consciously) enigmatic play; it is emotionally intense; and its characters are anxious and often desperate in their interactions with one another.

The characters are the residual members of a circus which has been abandoned by its proprietor and the rest of the troupe. So their equipment is rusty (the lights don't work) and there is only one performer ('Boy'), who has trouble making the throwing knives find their target.The relationships are complicated and often moving. 'Boy' has aspirations beyond performing, 'Stephanie', a girl of mysterious origins, finds herself compelled to protect him. Attempting to hold the circus together is 'Benjamin Benjamin', a loquacious charismatic who becomes more demented as events slip from his control.

The strength of the play lay in the acting and narrative rather than in the subtleties of wordplay. Nikki Moss (director and writer) made extensive use of figurative acting, with characters gliding and jumping around the stage. Although this can often be a blunt tool, here it provided both depth and clarity. The physical nature of the play was complimented by the rhythmic, thudding music - which was used to ominous effect. Special mention must also be made of the lighting, which was deliberately jittery and off-putting, at one point flashing on and off to illuminate the haunting face of 'Boy' as he is thrust into the limelight.

Perhaps the most salient aspect of this production was a set of extremely impressive individual performances. Tom England (as 'Benjamin Benjamin') was superb, Stephanie Aspell (as 'Stephanie') gave a charming, endearing performance and Michael Cotton was convincingly angst-ridden as 'Boy'.

Combined, these elements created a play that was sharp around the edges, visceral and almost uneasy to watch. It was written and directed in a distinctive style, there were some fantastic sequences and relationships and the effects were complimentary. I was impressed but also slightly perplexed. The production is deeply ambiguous and some plot developments are so odd that it is hard to make sense of them ( for example, 'Boy' inexplicably grows an electric, blue heart). One gets the sense that Moss intended the audience to wrestle with big ideas and concepts. But while there was plenty of material to sink one's teeth into, it was not ordered coherently and was difficult to interpret. I left feeling that there was something I had missed or not understood.

Nevertheless, this was a highly impressive production which was highly innovative and deftly played out. If it seems complicated upon first viewing, go again!

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