Finding Joy

Wed 1st – Thu 2nd May 2013

reviews

Rosie Oxbury

at 08:19 on 2nd May 2013

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'Finding Joy' was a unique piece of theatre to which I would have liked to give a higher rating. The execution – from the actors’ performances to changes in lighting – was flawless; the only detractions were in the overall composition of the play and performance.

It’s hard to know what to say about it first as it was unlike anything I had seen before. In Vamos Theatre’s “full mask” style, each character is represented by an individual mask (this also means that each character has only one facial expression for the entire play); the wig and mask together cover the whole head of the actor. The style of performance is then very physical, the plot and interactions between characters conveyed largely by mime with the aids of lighting and music. I overheard someone remarking that the effect was “surreal”, which I think is apt.

For me the strangeness of the masks never quite wore off. Initially they were creepy and some of them were frankly grotesque. That said, they were also used effectively and extremely cleverly. The single snapshot of a face that each mask stood for could, according to the gestures it was accompanied by, be angry, happy, contented, amused, confused, scared, worn out or relieved – paradoxically, the mask served to convey the multifaceted-ness of the character. This was most true of Joy and here I think the theatrical form matched its message (“looking beyond the dementia to the person”, as it says in the programme) nicely. I also liked the touches of detail that went into the masks: the bug eyes that characterised Danny, for example, turned out to be a hereditary trait from his grandfather.

It’s difficult to summarise the play as a whole because my reactions to different bits of it were so varied. Some parts didn’t quite work. The scenes with the teenage boys, I felt, fell flat: the comic sequences of adolescent tomfoolery just weren’t funny and the music quickly began to grate. The combination in one scene of a surreal mask figure and a real-life West Highland terrier was bizarre; this was made stranger by the puppet representation of the dog that appeared later, lip-syncing a song from the 1940s. And if the depiction of youth culture was crude, the caricature extracted from a failed suicide attempt was downright insensitive.

But at the same time, elements of the piece were truly moving. The play reached out to its audience through climactic moments – a frail old woman tumbling out of bed, Danny rescuing his grandmother after she wandered onto an A road – to tiny, heart-wrenching details, like Joy putting a birthday card in the fridge, or putting a plastic bag on her foot instead of a shoe. There were moments of brilliance dotted throughout, when suddenly the music and the mime chimed together to produce an instant of insight and clarity. Having never encountered dementia firsthand myself, I can’t deem if the overall presentation of dementia was sympathetic or simply patronising. But if aspects of the plot, other characters and the visual-audio spectacle at times missed the mark, the portrayal of Joy (acted by Nanou Harry) was unfailingly mesmerising. The play led the audience through the logic of Joy’s mind and the turns in her emotions. The effect was one of poignant irony, in the collision between her perception of her world and the reality lived by those around her.

Perhaps it’s precisely because these parts of the play were so inspired that the incongruities stand out as disappointments. To me it was a shame that what was at times magical was brought down at other by anomalous and miscalculated material.

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