In Spaced there’s a scene in which the main characters go to the performance art piece of an ex-partner, which consists of them shouting random words into a microphone whilst a second performer jumps around the stage with a vacuum cleaner tied to his leg, and dissonant music howls in the background. A meditation on clinical depression, set in an aquarium and told partially through the medium of dance, concerning the story of a cleaner who’s depression and isolation is represented by an anthropomorphic goldfish only he can see – described as Amélie via David Lynch – sounds like we could be walking towards Spaced territory. But are we? No.
Whilst on paper the pitch almost sounds like a parody in its ambitious attempt to embody wackiness and depth, the finished piece is anything but. This is a wild, surreal, knockabout comedy with a beating heart bursting with pathos and emotion that manages to be hilarious and heartbreaking. The impressive thing is that there’s no single element that makes it work. The staging, writing, audience interactions and cast are perfectly balanced, leading to one of the strongest pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time.
Lead by Andrea Foa and supported Joe Boylan and Kyle Shephard, the three men share a sparkling comedic chemistry from the moment they step on stage clad only in black leotards and rubber gloves on their left hands to perform a seaworld-style goldfish dance. Foa’s Remy completes the difficult job of conveying Remy’s emotional turmoil while still remaining believably stone-faced and numb for a considerable portion of the show. He’s admirably assisted by Boylan’s magnificently hateable Goldfish, who serves as an anthropomorphic representation of Remy’s struggle in a form-hugging black jumpsuit and an orange headpiece with a little tail poking out the back. Shephard completes the trio as Kyle, a work experience kid at the aquarium who strikes up a friendship with Remy, and serves as his ballast as he slips further into despair.
With a set of props amounting to little more than balloons, the trio create three compelling characters using their physicality and costumes, which anchor the show when it threatens to lose itself in its own zaniness. This only happens a couple of times, which is a credit to a piece trying to balance an honest, accurate look at mental illness with jokes about revolutionary jellyfish. Depression is something that I have experienced on a few occasions, and because of that, I can see the accuracy of Black Dog Gold Fish‘s depiction through the jokes and silliness. Finding the more serious, empathetic side of this piece rather than all the jokes might be harder for those who have not.
This is not a problem I have with the show, far from it. I know what it’s like to have the black dog of the title on my back, and Black Dog Gold Fish is one of the best and most accurate depictions of that feeling I’ve encountered. Even better, while there are a number of theatrical pieces that examine it with a sombre eye, writer Sam Bailey manages to capture the feeling while giving the world jellyfish dancing in formation. It’s silly without being lightweight and emotional without being foreboding – a breath of fresh air.
Black Dog Gold Fish is on until 27th March 2016. Click here for tickets.