Entering the Southbank Centre’s Blue Room to see Jack Dean’s Grandad and the Machine I didn’t quite know what to expect. The piece is billed as a ‘steampunk fairytale’, yet the stage in front of me seemed quite bare, occupied by two men, various instruments, a puppet, a suitcase, a bicycle wheel and a small round screen.
I was wondering whether it would be possible, with so few props to transport the audience to a different world. As it turned out, Dean manages this extraordinarily well. Josh Lucas joins him on stage to provide much of the piece’s musical landscape, but Dean performs all roles and narrates the whole piece. The story is set in a version of 2015 where history has taken a different turn and technology is stuck in the steam age. Whilst capitalism and corporations hold complete power over a dystopian British Empire, women’s rights are nonexistent and the public are constantly encouraged to buy, buy, buy.
Our protagonists Michael and his daughter Imogen, played by a puppet, flee London when the city is attacked by a giant mechanical monster that has emerged from the sea. As the two make their way towards Leeds to see Grandad, we slowly come to realise that Grandad, Michael and Imogen are deeply entangled in the history of this mechanical creature and that the three of them do not only have powerful enemies, but might also have the ability to release Britain from the nightmareish grip of capitalism.
Imogen is revealed as a math-crazy child prodigy, and her high intelligence, coupled with the energy, naivety and short attention span of a 7-year-old provides welcome comic relief throughout a play dealing with weighty politics. As the story unfolds we learn that this dystopian world has an uncanny resemblance to our reality and provides a commentary on the disappearance of public space, the power of corporations and consumerism.
This is humourously highlighted through Imogen’s wireless radio, where we hear commercials advertising products such as ‘opium custard’. Besides the adverts, the play is also interspersed with jazzed-up versions of existing songs, such as Wu Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)’, performed by Dean and Lucas.
Dean transforms almost seamlessly from one character to another – a flatcap turns him into Michael, a pair of goggles into a pilot, and a childlike tone brings the puppet that represents Imogen alive. Through Dean’s engaging narration a bicycle wheel becomes the London Eye; the stage turns into King’s Cross, then a Zeppelin, then a beach.
If all of this sounds like a lot to take on for one performer, it is. Dean is working incredibly hard onstage, and sometimes the pace of the play – changing from character to character, switching from musical numbers back into narration – is too fast to keep up with. Dean’s attempt at this is highly admirable and for the most part largely successful.
After a fantastic talk at the Southbank Centre’s Unlimited festival about creative approaches to audience description earlier in the day, Dean’s play provides an example of how a piece so based on narration already does a lot of that work for its audience (although there is additional audio description available as well), as we all have to use our imagination rather than visuals to access the play. Unfortunately, I also had a conversation with someone else who felt they couldn’t see the performance because there is no BSL translation and no projected subtitles for this very word-heavy play.
Overall, Grandad and the Machine demonstrates how a whole world can be summoned out of minimal props and stage design. It also highlights the impressive poetic, musical and narrative skills of Dean, who is undoubtedly a performer with an exciting career ahead of him.
This piece was produced in partnership with Disability Arts Online, a web-based journal for critique, discussion and promotion of work by disabled artists. Nina Muehlemann is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, researching performance-based disability arts in the context of London 2012, who writes for Disability Arts Online.