Nearly Human is the first ‘theatre thing’ (as a member of the band describes it at the end) by brass ensemble Perhaps Contraption. The slightly vague description is fitting – mixing descriptions of the journeys the atoms in our bodies take through the universe with song and movement, the show is part highly choreographed gig, part staged concept album and part… something else.
What it reminds me most of is an inspiring talk on a school science trip. Part of this is the content, with mind-blowing facts, pithy quotations and fascinating thought experiments tending to the familiar. But the more important thing that’s reminiscent of these early scientific experiences is the feeling it evokes – one of wonder. Even if you’ve heard these words before, the way they’re combined with the swelling and shifting music sidesteps its way past cynicism, and taps into something far more wide-eyed and open to experiencing awe. It makes sense – after all, however powerful David Attenborough’s voice and the images onscreen are, shows like Planet Earth wouldn’t be half as moving or affecting without their gorgeous score.
And Perhaps Contraption’s music truly is gorgeous – the opening harmonies feel like lying in the grass and seeing the clouds parting above you, almost able to feel the earth’s rotation. And from there they travel through luscious instrumentals to toe-tapping tunes to beautiful moments of controlled chaos. With the music as a base other elements are added to illustrate the magic of the universe, including a wall of glowing orbs and some truly lovely contact juggling.
The form of the piece does sometimes mean that the text, and the throughline of atomic philosophising, can frequently be obscured– overwhelmed by music, or sung a little too fast to follow. But this doesn’t really matter – the show seems much more about the feeling created by the overall effect than any individual fact or line. It’s rather lovely to relax into a warm bath of sound, and to feel like it doesn’t matter if you let your mind into the melody rather than strictly follow the piece’s logic (a particular gift on a Fringe morning in a festival full of frequently thinky theatre).
What does hold it back more, though, as a ‘theatre thing’, is the structuring. There were some nice structural touches – it seemed that the voice speaking to us changed over the course of the show from a young child to an old woman – but the performance needed a little more shape to be fully compelling. The repeated pattern of songs interspersed with recorded narration doesn’t have enough variation, and they use too many of their tricks too early, meaning each lost power every time they were brought back. The lack of overall arc to the show (combined with the often bombastic endings to songs) also meant there were about five moments that I thought were climactic finales, only for the show to continue afterwards.
Despite these minor quibbles, this is a massively enjoyable way to spend an hour. It is especially exciting, with the recent surge in gig theatre, to see bands moving in the opposite direction, creating a slightly different blend of music and theatre – especially when it is as warming and inviting as Nearly Human.
Nearly Human is on at Pleasance at 11.50am as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.