Outlier sees poet Malaika Kegode telling the story of her teenage friend group in rural Devon, supported by the music and voices of the band, Jakabol. It is by turns wistful, heartbreaking, and affirming, starting with a series of house parties, and the joys of being young and in love, before revealing the cracks created by the boredom and isolation of the idyllic environment around them.
Many of the show’s greatest strengths come from the interplay between Kegode and the band. As a whole it leans much more gig-ward than most gig theatre I’ve seen. The band play a whole 8 minute song before Kegode enters and the lights dim, and their style of loud, layered folk rock is immediately invigorating — in many ways the music echoes the portrait painted of Devon, by turns pastoral and grimy. Between sections of story, as they break for a drink or to re-tune, they come out of the world of the story, and Kegode chats to the audience. This slows down the story considerably, especially in the first half, but it feels fitting — what grips the audience after all is feeling a true connection to the central group of characters rather than shocking twists or intricate mysteries. It feels appropriate that so much time is spent creating a feeling of connection between those onstage and those in the audience. And Kegode is a charming and irreverent host — perhaps the funniest moment of the evening came when, after a Devonian audience member mentioned they were from Exeter, she replied ‘Oh, Exeter… I love Plymouth.’
Kegode is just as charismatic in the telling of her story, and slips smoothly between her own teenaged self and a more knowing present. While her narrative of events, and reflections on them, are frequently full of poetic imagery and musings on the nature of memory and relationships, they always feel like they have a core of honesty that prevents them from slipping into mawkishness or pretention. This is even seen in her dancing along to the band, which captures the contradictions of teenage-ness: abandon and awkwardness, energy and casualness.
This tender honesty extends as well to the way Kegode structures her story. There are life-changing moments through the show, but she acknowledges that these are never quite the new beginnings, or absolute endings that they feel like at the time. The show doesn’t end with a tragedy, or an escape, or a grand realisation. We get to see how the events of the story affect Kegode and her friends in different ways over time, and how their lives are informed, but never defined, by the tragedies of their youth.
The third, beautiful element of the show, alongside Kegode’s words and Jakabol’s music, is animation by Christopher Harrison. The style shifts to fit each scene — often simple and evocative settings, with detailed drawings suddenly appearing out of them to illustrate important moments, or cartoonish doodles and words which feel reminiscent of those in Tracy Beaker (absolutely a compliment). There is an attention to detail in the way animations are projected not only behind the performers, but also small sections of the stage and the auditorium panelling. The projection acts as backdrop, and emphasis, and also as words unsaid. Painful or foreboding moments often appear first, unacknowledged, in the animation, creating tension as the performers try not to see what is coming next.
These animations interact skilfully with Rebecca Wood’s set. The design strikes a balance between a theatre set and an artful gig. The band’s instruments dominate the stage and are backdropped by a collage of hanging rugs and lamps. It creates an impression of mundanity and cosiness (especially where the first couple of rows of the stalls are replaced by sofas) but also a sense of strange scale. Hung up and in combination the rugs almost feel like part of an exhibition – rural England displayed to be examined outside of its normal setting. The rugs also mean that the images projected onto them are always given an extra dimension of texture, creating an enjoyably noisy effect.
While the show is far from cosy, dealing with difficult subjects like addiction and overdose, it is imbued with a sense of care. The strong bonds between both the friends in Kegode’s tale and the performers onstage means that even in difficult parts of the story, the show is filled with a warmth that is difficult to resist.
Outlier runs at Bristol Old Vic until 26 June. More info here.