It feels slightly ironic that the first time I set foot in a theatre in 14 months, it is not to see a live performance but a film. But, in fact, Alphabetti Theatre’s AWARE makes for a perfect re-entry, giving the frisson of being inside a theatre building without the ‘oh God I hope nobody coughs’ anxiety of the not-yet-fully-vaccinated faced with being in an audience of strangers watching actual people perform on stage.
Buffered by the fluctuating, allowed today / forbidden tomorrow Covid regulations that have hit the North East particularly hard, the theatre has planned smartly. The films are available to view online as well as in the venue (all on a pay what you feel basis, and all are captioned with audio description available). Small groups book a time slot that sees you greeted and checked in outdoors, then led through various rooms to watch each of the three films in turn. Each staging point is tricked out in basic but themed décor, giving the venue the air of a slightly makeshift but enjoyably spontaneous party, making the most of the theatre’s compact, intimate space. Being led from room to room to view each film rather than sitting down to watch all three gives a pleasing sense of a journey, an Alice down the rabbit hole dislocation that makes for a more theatrical experience than just looking at a screen. After so long an absence, it felt strangely affecting to be sitting in a dark room under twinkling fairy lights waiting for a show to begin, and my eyes were prickling well before the first film started.
And blimey, About Face Theatre Company’s Creation isn’t pulling any punches. Directed with flair by Jess Mackenzie, what starts out as a gentle revisiting of common creation myths, using visually striking animation and micro-puppetry, becomes increasingly bleak as the performers (an empathetic and often darkly funny Laura Walne and Timothy Dowse) narrate a litany of environmental destruction, punctuated with our excuses for not caring about it.
About Face is a company of actors with learning disabilities, but while Creation doesn’t address this specifically, Hijinx’s The Audition is very much focused on the experiences of learning disabled and neurodivergent people, and as such it isn’t always an easy watch. Thirty neurodivergent individuals are invited to audition for a film, and the production interweaves their audition-piece performances with interviews where, gently prompted by the offscreen director (Dylan Wyn Richards), they talk about their lives and their ambitions. Tales of bullying are rife, presented with a rawness that is at times uncomfortable, the camera up close to such plainly laid out pain. But there’s also a defiant optimism there: from the actor who renamed himself Jack Wolf to remind himself how strong he is, to those ambitiously looking to stake a claim in Hollywood, and in doing so seize the power to represent themselves on screen.
It’s this claim to self-representation that forms the core of the final film, which ends the night on a definite high. Packed with bags of humour and directed by Jan-Willem Van Den Bosch with fierce, kinetic energy, Retake, Remake is slyly funny, gloriously kitschy fun, though it never lets you forget that beneath the killer soundtrack (a foot-tapping collection of floor fillers from Bronski Beat to Gloria Gaynor to the Beach Boys) and the often-campy aesthetic there is a serious message. While the actors in The Audition talk of making it to Hollywood to see themselves in films, Retake, Remake reminds us just how much such representation is needed. Performers Andrew Mcleod, Chris Moules, Andrew Robson and Cameron Thompson recreate scenes from films featuring characters with learning disabilities played by non-learning-disabled actors, from Sean Penn in I Am Sam to a youthful Mel Gibson in Tim. With bad wigs and dodgy lip-synch, it’s clearly played for laughs (with the input of collaborator Melody Sproates, who created the high energy lip-synch show Gender Not Included*, very much in evidence) and its absurdity is well-deployed. When cliched movie stereotypes of disability are overlaid onto actually disabled people, it becomes painfully apparent just how flimsy and one-dimensional they are, and there’s a fierce joy in seeing them so knowingly dismantled and reclaimed.
While each of the films works well on its own, the cumulative effect of watching all three is undeniable. Together, they make for a powerful trio and a vibrant, unapologetic reclaiming of a space that has for too long been exclusionary.
AWARE runs at Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle, until 5th June. More info here.