Saturday, 28 February 2015

Chapter 66: Sad Clown, Fun afFair

It could be said that theatre gold-dust is discovered when it mines the richness of humanity, in all its flaws and wonder, right to the depths, to its very core, and this is what happened in Parrot {in the} Tank's play Black Dog Gold Fish that was on at the Vault Festival last week.

Parrot {in the} Tank team: Big Claps Huge Smiles
Photo: Facebook 

Through the play, writer Sam Bailey explores the subject of depression, examining the absurd and the wonderfully funny in the situation as much as the negative. I had heard about the production from a friend, Gemma, who had been there at university for me with a listening ear, when I was studying the language of Almódovar and a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown myself. Finding my voice was what made the difference - having a listener, and finding a creative way to express it.  Through oil pastels, and juggling balls when I couldn't give a toss. The blacker the mood, the brighter the colours. 20 years on, it seems circus skills and colourful expression are still my default coping mechanism! And here is this play, a work in progress they announce, just 12 days old when I saw it on Sunday, finding its voice, and a sell-out audience to boot. It is a play that can pack a poignant punch in the guts, while also being laugh-out-loud funny.

Black Dog Gold Fish was part of the Vault Festival, by Waterloo, a space where water drips down the walls, judders with the rumble of trains overhead. It's a veritable dank tank and the perfect stage for a play set in a run-down aquarium. Enter Italian Remy, a Mediterranean stranded in a dilapidated English seaside town in winter, the proverbial fish out of water, and he's dropped his trousers. Eccola il bufo, I thought, cue clown. And here I define clown as a figure putting pain on show, whether from a mental or physical knock, which gives rise to laughter. We laugh at an absurd scenario, but we also squirm in empathy, for that is the cathartic function of the actor, isn't it? The actor represents the audience. We follow him on a journey into the unknown from a safe distance, although with the transverse seating and the characters often addressing the audience, the illusion of the safety net of a fourth wall quickly dissolves in this production.

The gentle and sensitive Remy (Andrea Foa) is working for the forthright, frankly nitwit of a boss, Mr Kyriacou (Joe Connor), and while caring for the fish becomes increasingly despondent, as though their incarceration in the tanks mirrors his own entrapment in his mental state. So he releases them one by one, but accidentally kills one. This is played out in a fantasy sequence at a funfair, where a symbolic rescue of a goldfish goes helter-skelter when the winning dart he is throwing accidentally spears the fish. The fish then comes back to life as a surreal manifestation of his guilt (for his depression as much as its death), a head on the body of a black dog, exacting revenge by causing Remy to push away all human contact, and ultimately his only friend, Kyle, played by the gracefully gangly Kyle Shepherd.

If that sounds at all bleak, it's not.  There is a lot of warmth and humour throughout the play. Kyle at one point, as he sees it emulating his friend Remy on a zen journey to become one with the jelly fish, breaks into the aquarium at night,  threading his way comically through the alarm sensors (red wool held in zigzag by the audience), to jump into the tank and mimic their moves. Joe Boylan's black body-suited Goldfish is hilarious, and has all the dry wit of a cabaret act, never a drag, in the way he inveigles himself into Remy's good books to the exclusion of all others. Remy holds onto him as company, but that only serves to underline to the audience his increasing isolation in the real world. Ultimately, as Remy lets go, the goldfish gets flushed down the loo, which made me both laugh and wince. There is a bar I once went to in Paris, in the Quartier du Marais, you see, where the loo had a fake cistern-cum-fishtank. It takes some nerve to pull the chain.

One of the questions asked by Parrot {in the} Tank on Facebook is where would you like to see the show go next? Well, depression, particularly among men, has been very much in the press this week. Matt Haig, an author I came across on Twitter, has been writing in the Guardian about his own experience (click here), in Times 2 there was a feature on the vulnerability of sensitive boys in pressurised environments (click here), even Grazia was featuring the story of an attempted suicide, one of the saddest parts being it was such a surprise to his wife. And that's another thing in terms of indicators - the sad clown is a misnomer when it comes to depression, often it ticks by unnoticed under the surface, just out of view, a point made in the promo video for Kickstarter:

So, I would say target the teenagers who do not always have the tools in place to open up. Show them a voice, a way, and that they are not alone. They can cope with the colourful language. And it'll beat the grey days.

The musical version of Almódovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown starring Tamsin Greig is on at the moment at The Playhouse.

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