Powder Keg
Powder Keg and Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

Hannah Mook and Ross McCaffrey Credit: Chris Payne
Jake Walton, Ross McCaffrey and Hannah Mook Credit: Chris Payne
Jake Walton and Hannah Mook Credit: Chris Payne

Manchester-based powder keg has bravely put together a whole hour without a single word spoken in this piece for which, according to the theatre's web site, we are invited "to watch the world crumble as three bears sniff away at its carcass".

I refer to the web site as this isn't at all clear from watching the piece. Discussing it afterwards, we weren't sure whether the three performers were actually supposed to be bears, playing around in human debris and trying to emulate human behaviour, or were humans in some post-apocalyptic society where spoken language had been lost and people behaved partly from memories of civilised life and partly like wild bears.

Either, really, would put across the environmental message that seems to be embedded in the whole production, from the recycled materials in the set to the download-only programme.

The piece begins as a solo bear, Jake Walton, intrudes into the territory of a bear couple, Hannah Mook and Ross McCaffrey. The twosome have built something like a human dwelling from old sheets of plastic and tarpaulin and other debris and have human-like rituals, including cleaning with old wash flannels and discarded deodorant sprays and eating at a makeshift table complete with tablecloth, napkins and cutlery.

The newcomer tries to join in, while the others, at first reluctantly, teach him their ways and accept him as a member of their group (in a very un-bearlike way). There is some lovely physical humour in the mixture of human and bear behaviour and a real playfulness in the interaction between the characters—at least at first.

Then something happens that involves a lot of banging about, destruction of the set and fusing of the lights. It is assumed that this is something to do with human activity and climate change, but there isn't any clear indication of what is happening as we are left quite literally in the dark. By this point, it has got to be rather self-indulgent and too much effort to try to work out what we are being told.

The programme tells us that Powder Keg makes "fast paced, experiential, anarchic performances", but this is none of those things. The slow pace is quite charming early on, but later becomes a drag; it is no more "experiential" than any other production where you sit in the dark and watch a performance; and ripping the set apart and throwing things about isn't really anarchic.

The performances are totally committed throughout, and the design is great, particularly the costumes (designer Liz Sheard), but even though the press night performance ran a good ten minutes shorter than the projected hour and five minutes, it seemed a great deal longer.

It's a brave thing to perform for an hour without words; when Bears tries to entertain it succeeds, but when it tries to force a message, it becomes unclear and not remotely as interesting.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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