Saturday, 4 April 2015

Brink @ Royal Exchange Studio, 26.03.15

Brink, the latest production by the Royal Exchange's Young Company, marks Associate Director Matthew Xia's directorial debut for the theatre. An ambitious production, the company worked together with Youth Director Matt Hassall and poet and Exchange associated artist Jackie Kay to explore the idea of being “on the brink” using spoken word, song, dialogue, beatboxing, physical theatre and most importantly, the experiences of the performers.

What is initially striking about the production is its design - the Studio has been truly transformed into an other worldly, futuristic place, with a raised platform divided into grids of light (reminiscent of Tron), creating lots of small edges the actors can reach. These perhaps symbolise the "brinks", both big and small, we encounter throughout our lives. As the show progresses lighting design and staging are consistently strong, with doors suddenly appearing in the set and the cast crawling into other worlds, (or perhaps the "real world") which the audience has no sense of previously.

Throughout the production though it is the concept of “the brink” as an other worldly place that jars for me. The use of a slightly foreboding score sometimes overdramatised asides to the main stories, which otherwise could have served as light relief. The repetition of "this graceless place" seemingly used to assert the idea of the brink being a place rather than an idea didn't work for me, and was slightly overused.

In addition, the necessity of bringing the whole company on to the stage and establishing a world to which they all enter for different reasons, starts the play off with a rather chaotic tone. Although this establishes the concept of “being on the bring”, starting at such a high octane initially gave me reservations about what was to follow.

Disregarding the Brink as an alternative world, the concept serves as fruitful stimulus for the company emotionally, exploring decisions and conflicts big and small with humour, insightfulness and authenticity throughout the performance. The vast majority of the individual stories ring true, being told with a comforting ease which allow for some fantastic performances.

As I mentioned earlier, Kay wrote the piece after lengthy discussion with the company and there is a real sense of their ownership over their stories and the material in general. A sense of having discovered things for themselves and supporting one another through the process, which is what really great youth theatre should be about. As with any piece "based on the experiences of the performers", the show made me wonder how much of it was real, especially with the harder hitting sections, but the performers always felt safe and supported.

Where the production, and performers really came alive was during the musical numbers, written collaboratively with the company and composed by young company member Jason Singh who accompanied on piano. Strongest of the original material was "Fragile" where the performers harmonised, danced and channelled the emotions of the lyrics wholeheartedly.

Both Director Xia and Associate Director Hassall have spoken passionately about their belief in theatre as a social tool and their admiration of the young company they have had the privilege of working with. Every performer on stage seemed comfortable, confident and cared for, all given space to explore and an opportunity to shine, creating a sensitive, energetic, varied, authentic and therefore triumphant show.

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