Devised with the Oval House’s young migrants group Counterpoint Arts in collaboration with Mark Storor, this performance slots into the Simple Acts campaign, which records actions from something as simple as smiling, to encountering art made by refugees, or writing a letter to your MP, as part of a plan to raise awareness about refugees in the UK; both gain power through channelling huge, sprawling themes into straightforward moments of emotional intensity.
The director Mark Storor is well known for working with community groups – he took over the Roundhouse in 2011 with a work devised with teenagers over 18 months, and has also made work with gay prisoners, and with terminally ill people. Here, seven performers take over the whole ground floor of the theatre, each crafting a space – whether a small circle or ledge or whole room – to occupy. The spaces feel mid-way between performances and installations, using multi-sensory elements of leaves and bark under foot, projected family snapshots or overwhelming scent to create atmospheres so personal they stifle. Each one gives rise to a monologue of personal loss, frustration and detachment.
So much immersive or promenade theatre takes a lot for granted about the audience; that they’ll be able bodied, as well as able to cope emotionally with whatever is thrown at them. This performance starts gently, with ritual handwashing, each person eased in with warm water and soft towels. It’s refreshing to be talked through, however loosely, what’s going to happen – without taking away any of the piece’s power to surprise.
Some installations have a raw emotional shock – a wall of neat, string-suspended paper boats looks childish, playful, until you see the upturned debris of fallen vessels on the floor below, a reminder of the colossal dangers refugees risk to escape to other countries. The simplistic “boat people” image is turned back, rethought. A performer rolls himself up in a length of paper bright chalk pictures that tell his own story, neatly dotted with half eggshells; silence is punctuated by the regular crunch and crackles, in a kind of agonising human player-piano. The audience can choose to put on blindfolds for a scene where scissors snip erratically, unpredictably around us; the sudden shock and disjunct of leaving home, or leaving a refuge.
Other moments are warmer, more nurturing. A performer inhabits a dressing room turned into an overwhelming, colour and scent-saturated world of pink rose petals, her lipstick-scrawls on the mirrors a marking of safe territory, not a gesture of rebellion. As a boy dreams on a sofa, the television flickers with images of a dressage performance, and his halting, haunting recorded monologue talks of a beloved horse left behind, exchanged for city alienation. The whole, sprawling experience is bound together with music, with incredibly beautiful, rootless female voices harmonising into and filling the black spaces around each small sanctuary.
There’s a faint, inevitable awkwardness in this performance’s shifts from being part of intimate small groups to being one of many in a large space; the teenagers in the party magnify the odd gaps in the show’s smooth narrative with nudged and whispered speculation. But the climatic, spectacular, gathering around a fire in the OvalHouse car park, clutching tea, doesn’t feel awkward at all — as the performers break from their spaces to mingle with the audience, it feels like a cathartic culmination to an evening of disorientating, personal, sensory experiences.