Review by Bronagh Taggart
Burst takes over from the BAC Opera and wants to 'burst' pre-conceptions about what musical theatre can be.
Several events are staged simultaneously and the audience is encouraged to drop in and out. This goes against the grain somewhat as I've always been of the school of thought that once you commit to going to a performance, you stay there until it's finished! However, given that the first event Bed Full of Songs by Berlin-based Plan b was due to last five hours, I had no choice but to give my hang-ups the elbow and embrace the casual spirit of the evening.
Bed Full of Songs was an attempt by Plan b (a duo consisting of Sophia New and Daniel Belasco Rogers) to sit on a bed singing as many songs as they could remember. Nothing was out of bounds - rock, musicals, nursery rhymes, even hymns. The only rule is that they musn't sing songs by the same artist consecutively. Once they've completed at least one verse and a chorus, they write the title and artist on the duvet cover. The double bed dominated the space and the audience were scattered around them on armchairs and cushions.
Apart from audience suggestions, Plan b literally sang the first things that came into their heads. For example, an enthusiastic rendering of Ian Dury's 'Hit me with your Rhythm Stick,' which contained the line "Ich liebe dich", prompted Marlene Dietrich's German version of 'Falling in Love again', which in turn gave way to Suzanne Vega's 'Marlene on the Wall'. You get the idea. The evening got off to a slow start, not just because the audience numbered only about six people but because the artists were being truly spontaneous and were struggling to remember songs and words. The second time I visited them (really getting into this 'drop in and out' business), they were in the swing of things with the audience singing along to West Side Story. It was a jolly singalong, but I felt the event could have been more revelatory in terms of the couple talking through their intimate memories of what the songs meant to them. That's surely part of the fun of those singalongs - reliving your past through the music that was in vogue at the time.
However, if it was intimacy I was looking for, I was just about to get it in spades. I had booked in for the one-to-one performance of An Intimate History performed by Jake Oldershaw. Described as "theatrical Russian Roulette", this refers to the fact that you're given a menu with six items on it from which you choose your theatrical experience. I decided I'd have a go with The Mayor of Strasbourg's Passions, if only because it was the most obscure title of the bunch. The maitre d' who'd taken my order commended my choice and said he'd make the necessary preparations and be back in five minutes. This all sounded a bit worrying so it was with some trepidation that I was led into the cavernous studio to be met by Jake Oldershaw and David Nisbet, the composer who was also accompanying him on the piano.
The piece is written by Craig Stephens, based on the 1994 book An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin.
Oldershaw greeted me by name, led me to a table and chairs that had been decked out with a red check tablecloth and told me that the story would take us to France. The theme was loneliness. Flashed up on the wall were images of lonely people - some trapped by their job, some by bad marriages, some by a lack of courage. And finally there was the Mayor of Strasbourg herself, a driven woman who had given everything to her work and in middle age found this was not enough. She had passions she was unable to share with anyone else. I listened to the stories, careful not to instinctively shy away from the eye contact Oldershaw was making with me. But all the time I was wondering whether I was supposed to take part in this event. Was I just supposed to listen? Or was I meant to say something too? Was he despairing that he was getting no reaction - or is that just what he expects? Being an audience member is normally a shared experience - clap or laugh along with everyone else. So when you're an audience of one, you've got no reference point.
The ten minutes were almost up, Oldershaw finished singing about the plight of the Mayor and took a polaroid photo of me which he gave me - citing it as the final mystery of the evening. How would it turn out? Then I was whisked away so they could prepare for the next person. So how was it for me? Bewildering, embarrassing, invigorating, leaving me wanting more? All of those things. Not for the faint-hearted who worry about exposing too much of themselves. As a reviewer, I felt handicapped by the fact that I was only able to see one of the six shows. Did they tailor the show suit me? If I'd been a man would there have been a male Mayor of Strasbourg?
A fascinating launch night which promises many more exciting performances in the weeks to come.
"Burst" runs until 15th May