Wide eyed and smiling earnestly Dorcas Seb dances in a repetitive, slightly robotic style. The audience slowly start to fill 3 sides of the stage and sit while Seb continues to dance. The music shifts subtly as a more electronic hum starts to merge in and create a more ominous tension. The 3D effect set by Dylan Howells is strikingly beautiful with its neon blue and pink lights that flicker and flow across the floor and backdrop like neural pathways in an artificial brain or a strange simulation of the tree of life. By the time Seb actually starts to speak she has already created an absorbing, dystopian vibe that feels trance like and strangely calming.
Vice Versa was originally conceived as an E.P in 2018 but has been crafted into a visually arresting, evocative piece of performance art/gig theatre. Commissioned by EclipseTheatre and HOME as part of the Slate: Black. Arts. Worldproject in 2018/19, with development support from Unity Theatre and funded by Arts CouncilEngland. It is clearly a deeply personal project for Seb which explores the modern digital world and our increasing fixation and reliance on our phones and computer screens as a means of communication. The original ideas behind this piece in 2018 were to become even more sharply prevalent during the pandemic when our spoken words mainly flowed from our fingers and direct eye contact was via a Zoom screen.
Dorcas Seb is a confident and accomplished artist who creates an engrossing audience experience. The production feels genuinely immersive and the seating layout brings the audience so close to Seb it’s as if they too are awaiting induction into this new dystopian world. As a performer she seems to effortlessly move between dance, spoken word, song and some wickedly good characterisations. As she morphs into her Boss and gives a sassy, evangelical spiel to the new recruits, she really brings the character alive. There is a wonderful physicality to her performance and likewise when she sings her voice is rich and pure moving from spoken word to disco to RnB without flaw.
Vice Versa takes us to a world where the Welfare State no longer exists and the Welt-exe state governs our thoughts and actions. Working hard and being a good citizen is rewarded with a repetitivebliss created by the experiences purchased when codesarecurrency and realdreamsarea thing of the past. The world as perceived by Seb’s alter ego Xella is not exactly unpleasant in its familiarity and routine but her character is increasingly aware of her isolation and lack of human connectivity. 17 hour work days are interspersed with subway journeys, state infomercials and moments of joy when plugged into code REM where Xella momentarily can play Grandma’s Footsteps among the pixilated trees. It is during one of her journeys into artificial REM that the code glitches and her unwavering acceptance of this dystopian reality is challenged. Suddenly there are questions to be answered but no one to answer them…simply a quietly ruthless invitation to reboot or risk being ostracised as a crossed out.
Xella charts her own course and removes her digital collar to suddenly look up at the blue sky and the birds. Her redemptive journey is about connection and being in the moment. For the Crossed outers this may be an evangelical connection with Christ…for others it may be simply about living in the moment and being fully present with ourselves and others. However you choose to express your connectivity in the world Vice Versa is certainly a cautionary tale and we would all be wise to still connect to the digital world but start thinking about how we use it and not how it uses us.
It’s 14 months since the Royal Exchange closed its doors on the eve of press night for Rockets and Blue Lights. Racing across St Ann’s Square to the cheers across the city as England scores in the footie, I spot the smiling faces of the theatre Comms team as they welcome everyone back to press night. There is a general feeling of goodwill and excitement in the building so undoubtedly huge pressure on Writer/Performer Lauryn Redding and Director Bryony Shanahan and the team to make this a night to remember. It’s a huge gamble to have only one performer sustain a 2 act 2 hour plus performance on the main stage and make it work, make it matter, make it memorable for the work not just as a reopening after a global pandemic…Lauryn Redding does just that. Funny, tender and raw, Bloody Elle is a rousing tale of sexual awakening with all its joy and sorrow. As Redding tells us Censoring. Of anything. Of anyone. Of yourself. Of someone else. Is exhausting and it cuts you from the inside.
Director Bryony Shanahan and Movement Director Yandass Ndlovo ensure that the performance has flow and energy and never feels like a static piece of solo story telling. The staging by Designer Amanda Stoodley dispenses with the famous banquette seats and their potential covid risks. Instead she introduces red stools and candle lit tables to create a cosy pub vibe that effectively frame the stage. This is gig theatre and a true one woman band. The original music by Redding with direction by Sound Director Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is great and drives the narrative but also creates a swirling soundscape to add mood and shade to the story telling.
The multi levelled stage aids the introduction of characters and scenes including Elle’s high rise council flat in Cloud Rise and is splashed with what seems to be a bucket of white wash? This picks up the bursts of coloured light that flood the stage or envelop Redding. The white wash effect also seems to reflect the way we can paint out aspects of ourselves or let others not see our true colours, to continue to not see the whole of us, the truth of what and who we may be if we own our own story. Corny perhaps but I wish Redding was flooded with glorious rainbow colours as she look her well deserved second curtain call.
The story is a simple story of girl meets girl. There is a division of class and aspirations when working class Elle meets posh Eve with guacamole green eyes on route to a medical degree at Oxford University. They bond over vinyl records and work at Chips and Dips despite their differences – Eve has a pony in a paddock whereas Elle has Big Sally on the 12th floor. The driving force of this narrative is less about class, it zeroes in on the agony and ecstacy of first love and how this is still intensified by the difficulties for many of coming to terms with your sexuality and being accepted for who you are and how you love.
This is a show that might not have been seen at the Royal Exchange without the global pandemic. Redding would probably been too busy working to create this show and a solo gig theatre performance might not have been an obvious choice for this theatre. It probably needed ten years of growing and healing for Redding to be ready to tell such a personal story. There is a vivid whip sharp authenticity to this performance. Insouciant banter with the audience, poignant and emotional song writing, raw, vivid storytelling filled with poetic observations…Bloody Elle ticks every box and more. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of rebuilding what is broken or damaged using gold to create something stronger and even more beautiful. Redding has taken her broken heart and using her artistic talent as Kintsugi – the result is the threads of gold running through this gorgeous show. Hopefully as we navigate the new normal of Covid-19, the Royal Exchange is also emerging with new seams of gold too.