“There’s someone who did this study he’s called Daniel something and he calculated what our day is made of he reckons we experience around twenty thousand individual moments every day.”
Adam Barnard’s first full-length play is a kaleidescope of 30 or so moments – fleeting and recurring, personal and abstract, extended and abrupt. They’re all in some way a riff on mortality – time counted down to the end of a life, or away on an idle afternoon; parents coming to terms with their child’s death, or imagining their own; moments as questions (“What do you think about euthanasia?”) or refrains (“Tip. Fill. Carry. Pour.”)
Rania Jumaily’s playful production skittles by like a flip-book. Some characters or scenarios recur but mostly these are individual scenes, snap-shots into different lives in which different people consider mortality in different ways, and often conclude spiritedly to seize the moment or speak their mind. At its best buckets deftly satirises our obsession with the bucket list phenomenon – in one moment a terminally ill teenager bemoans her bedside visit from a celeb/pop-star-type whose idealistic, worry-free life is the last thing she finds comforting right now; in another, an editor cajoles his reporter into turning an interview with a child with cancer into Ten Things I Learnt from Dying Girl. Number seven will change your life.
There are a few variations on the mortality theme: several moments explore intergenerational relationships, parents coming to terms with their child’s illness, a boy plotting to run away with his teacher. Several play with language / music, looking at the impact of language through journalism or what Eminem’s lyrics have in common with Shakespeare, or simply with the directness of the linguistic challenge offered by the text (how to stage a scene with no character assignment, or of only a few words). The idea of symphony is resonant throughout, with music central to Rania Jumaily’s production in which a six-strong cast share out the text in a combination of solo, duo and ensemble moments, often veering into song.
Playfulness, too, is at the core of Barnard’s text. His written script doesn’t prescribe roles, character breakdowns, or cast size – his notes encourage casting across gender, choosing whatever number of actors the director sees fit, and making singular voices plural where needs be. His text notes that the moments published (which themselves vary slightly from those performed) are a fraction of the material written; it becomes clear elsewhere that the rehearsal process focussed as much on devising these moments as it did rehearsing them. The effect is an increasing awareness of the potential scale of buckets’ subject matter – that these are barely half the moments that might have been chosen, half the evidence that might have demonstrated the huge and various facets of mortality as a human experience.
And Barnard indulges us in that – a note in the playtext invites you to email him for your own b-side, a scene not selected for this production but nonetheless created for it. In the handful of emails we exchange – talking generally about the play – he seems surprised by the number of requests he’s received so far. My scene arrives at the weekend, personalised: “Ben Monks – buckets b-side – Practice Partner.” It would have been scene 41, two characters I didn’t see on the night but who echo many of its refrains – the logic of love, list-making, liking “the same weird old music.” It’d perhaps be unfair to write publicly about a scene meant for private consumption, but in any case it’s the process that’s more interesting; the fact that, as Barnard points out, any future production of the play might choose to include its own b-sides, swap out some old material and cover some new ones; that the possibilities are endless. (“Maybe I’d better write something else,” Barnard emails when wondering whether he has a moment that focusses on a subject I’d asked about; “I’ll send it over if so.”) Indeed, it transpires through our emails that the production itself is in flux – I mention that I thought it curious religion was largely absent (unusual for a play about the human existence?) until a gospel song in the final scene; Barnard replies that the song choice varies show to show – on Friday it was There Is A Light.
Jumaily’s production captures both senses of this spirit of play, the set dominated by a silver playground slide and the ensemble aware of their role as players, introducing scenes by microphone, watching each other’s moments. It’s a schmaltz-proof approach, retaining a detached edge throughout thanks to the blue and grey palate of James Turner’s design (plus a fuzz of haze), but it sometimes lacks the warmth that Barnard’s script would perhaps have benefitted from. This is exemplified in the use of a small choir who make two interjections from the voms. Credited in the programme as a community ensemble they’re presumably made up of volunteers / local community members, and there might have been something of real impact in engaging members of the local area as directly as this in a show of potentially such universal appeal. But with their community nature unreferenced in script or production, and the presentation of their songs at odds with the tone of the rest of Jumaily’s production, their role feels unclear and their impact distracting.
It’s ultimately disappointing, then, that the scope of buckets’ moments don’t have the breadth of vision that their subject matter demands. Aiming for a universal, broad-brush picture, its real-world moments are lacking in diversity. Barnard’s approach to the text, the process and his audience seems open, engaging and exciting; but the moments we end up seeing feel safe, lacking (at least in this production) discussion of mortality outside a white, articulate and largely urban context. (Compare, say, the more fully-formed portrait of society in Love and Information, another vignette-based piece whose impact lies in the totality of the lives represented). buckets’ dystopian moments – Terms and Conditions before birth, or the admin of the afterlife – feel more universal in their scope, but lack the sharpness of vision demonstrated in some of the more satirical scenes (the journalist / editor or child / pop star), failing to push familiar concepts (that purgatory is like one big bureaucratic nightmare, for example) onto new ground. The result is a fortune cookie sort of production – prettily packaged and fun to unpack, buckets’ message of carpe diem is briefly satisfying; but it lacks the substance to properly fill you up.