Eric Chantelauze, from an original idea by Gabrielle Jourdain, English translation by Quentin Bruno
Aria Entertainment and WEF Productions from an original French production by Musidrama & Bureau Sauvage
I saw a live theatre performance this week, the first in something approaching six months.
I expect a lot of recent reviews start with more or less these words—a succinct reflection of our theatre-going times that totally fails to convey the momentousness of what they record.
The show I saw is itself also a reflection of our times in both form and content.
C-o-n-t-a-c-t, is a piece of COVID-tailored theatre that emerged from co-writers Samuel Sené and Gabrielle Jourdain's need to reconnect with their work and audiences.
It is an outdoor, all-weather promenade event where live performances are given by actors delivered to a pre-recorded soundtrack of Eric Chantelauze’s script (translation by Quentin Bruno), Cyril Barbessol’s music and various sound effects. The track is heard through headphones via a mobile phone app (developed by Jean-Philippe Marie de Chastenay and Touaregs) assuring audio clarity for everyone.
The setting is very informal. The action starts when the audience realise they can hear the thoughts of a young woman walking by and we start to follow her.
This is Sarah who lives a socially distanced life; she is emotionally isolated and becoming physically ill, though what ails her isn’t coronavirus but the damaging properties of unprocessed loss and grief. A stranger approaches her but he is not the danger that he seems at first, his unexpected superpower holding the key to her emotional redemption.
It is a short, warm-hearted, intimate story better suited to a small venue that finds itself somewhat out of scale with its outdoors, spread-out transmission.
Although Samuel Sené’s direction goes some way to overcome the open spaces and create effecting moments, the backdrop of Tower Bridge illuminated against the dusk-dark sky was one of a few distractions, and the joggers with puzzled looks who ran through the gaps created by our social distancing broke the magical link.
The self-distancing audience hears the same soundtrack and watches the same action but nonetheless remains a gathering of clusters with no sense of having a collective experience. And it doesn’t help knowing that in other locations in London at the same time, other audiences are listening to the same soundtrack voiced by Aoife Kennan and Richard Heap, although they could be watching one of three pairs of performers.
Ours were Laura White, sweet and engaging and appearing all the more vulnerable against the massive Shard lit up like Christmas, and Max Gold mixing down-to-earth ordinary with powers of healing.
Whilst I understand the commercial imperative for an element of kit-form creativity, mix and match casting and volume delivery to the show’s financial viability, it niggles me in a way that seeing Les Mis and knowing there are tens if not hundreds of almost identical productions happening across the world does not. Perhaps this is another part of the new normal to which I will have to become accustomed.
For the meantime, to be sure I am very happy to be seeing live performance again and C-o-n-t-a-c-t’s format means that it can play any number and variety of locations and reach audiences who are not yet ready to go inside theatres and that has to be a good thing.
C-o-n-t-a-c-t can be seen at three London locations: Monument EC3, Clapham Common SW4 and Greenwich SE10.
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti