Olwen Davies and Ollie Smith, collectively LaPelle’s Factory, wanted to host a movie night at home – crime classic Bonnie and Clyde, it transpires, was the carefully chosen film of choice. But their sofa wasn’t big enough, so they moved the screening to Camden People’s Theatre. The trouble is, the couple go on to explain, they now can’t actually play a movie because they don’t have the proper licence for a public screening.
Or that’s the conceit of Cloudcuckoolanders. And it’s a clever one: bringing the private into public allows them to discuss social acceptability and public performance versus private performance. The sharply perceptive play that follows is a performance of performance. Olwen’s laboured attempts to put on the perfect movie night are purposefully awkward. She is eerily, cheerily robotic in her determination to set the right ‘vibe’, which she does by offering blankets, hot chocolate and popcorn to the audience. Everything she learnt, she learnt from the movies, she proudly announces. Ollie’s performance, which is off-key and incredibly enjoyable, is more relaxed; he is less worried about getting it right. The difference in approach is well observed, as this is so often how men and women are presented in films: the casual, at ease male; the anxious, self-conscious female.
Indeed, the proliferation of movie references and video footage – the duo announce that they will be shooting live footage throughout the performance – reminds us that all our behaviour is simultaneously learnt and watched. The black and white live footage, which is played onto a backdrop screen, is especially effective. In one instance, following on from a screening of a c.1950s Colgate advert (it being a public screening, the popcorn we were offered had to come with a health warning), Ollie comes onto the topic of the tooth fairy. From there he finds himself musing on the fact that murder victims are identified by their dental records. Meanwhile, the video camera has been trained on Olwen sorting teeth into neat rows with the macabre precision of a lepidopterist. It’s all very sinister, in fact, and more so than the marketing suggested.
The intricate narrative is told in this madcap, conversational manner, through a series of carefully set up segues, cinematic vignettes and sinister interludes. Have you ever imagined murdering a motorist who cut you up or following a complete stranger home? You could. But you don’t. Society functions because we all promise to live within certain agreed limits. At times, it feels as if the larger point of the conversation is slipping away, but the artful way that ideas, video footage and props are folded back into the main narrative prevents the production from tripping over itself.
That said, it is the cinematic climaxes punctuating the conversational plot rather than the pathways between them that make this play a success. A memorable example sees both actors describe who they would, statistically, be most likely to murder. Olwen would kill her boyfriend, or her children, and Ollie would target his girlfriend, or, if he didn’t want to be too obvious, a slim, vulnerable-looking brunette, from the audience, perhaps… The scene ends in a sinister tableau of the pair wearing novelty popcorn sunglasses and surveying the audience for victims. We are reminded that going out in public is one huge trust exercise. I did wish that there were more of these moments.
But it is not just our public front that Cloudcuckoolanders interrogates; it also enters the inner sanctum and examines our home front, as it were. Because it isn’t just on the bus or in the supermarket that we have to suppress what would be perceived as criminality or insanity; the pretence endures at home. When the other’s back is turned Olwen and Ollie continually sneak off into violent fantasies. It’s not unlike watching Tom and Jerry (Itchy and Scratchy for Generation Z) attempt to garrotte, maim and murder each other, not least because neither pair are capable of actually harming their partner in companionship and crime.
Ollie is especially good in an impassioned monologue where he imagines, in what begins as an act of love, building a bonfire of Olwen’s possessions. In turn, Olwen visualises murdering Ollie and burying him under the patio. These fantastically sinister asides are always cut short by the arrival of something normal. But, tellingly, the beginning of every twisted note arrives subtly, building slowing from love or worry or an offhand question to a bizarre crescendo, because the maniacal runs alongside the mundane. Although, we are told, it’s scary in here and scary out there, it’s scarier out there because of what’s in here. I’m not sure if it’s comforting or terrifying to know that every person you pass on the street is just as cuckoo as you, but it’s certainly true. Luckily, there are designated safe spaces where we can act out our insanity – the theatre being one of them.