New Wimbledon Studio
Three years ago Sketty Productions produced a hauntingly touching portrait of a man who had lost a child. Imogen fused puppetry and physical theatre with a taut and affecting script by writer-director Toby Clarke.
Clarke and his company have been developing Feral for three years. Again, innovative puppetry and movement blend seamlessly with the naturalistic story of Matthew, a young man suffering from Aspergers Syndrome. The storyline is one which I have never seen represented onstage: Matthew has become obsessed with cats to the point that he wants to be one. It's a slightly preposterous and absurd concept. But this is no Albee play, and in Sketty's hands it is a deeply moving experience of a man isolated from the outside world. Teachers, family and friends cannot understand his need and desire to prowl around, be stroked and ultimately become a cat for the rest of his life.
Agoraphobic also, a dark figure leaps on his back, tumbles on top of him and pins him to the floor. He cannot escape the power inside of him which keeps him locked up in his flat. However, he manages to get Sebastian, a painter, into his space where he asks him to create a forest mural to cover his walls. At first wary of the overly honest Matthew, whose strange comments and physical ticks (played note-perfectly by Alex Clarke) are disconcerting; he returns the following day with paint brushes in hand.
Slowly and gently (Clarke's direction is not afraid to utilise the power of silence), we realise that the pair have a troubled history together, and Matthew is attempting to recreate the woods in which he embraced fully his cat alter-ego, and Sebastian indulged in a personal fantasy which resulted in his being fired from the school in which he taught. Nothing is overtly stated and we are left to wonder about what exactly happened on that fateful day.
What we do see is a magnetic struggle for both characters. Matthew is both at home and constantly at odds with his embodiment of a cat whilst physically and mentally struggling with his condition. Sebastian wants to help him, yet knows he cannot get too close for fear of the outside world's judgement and consequences. The transformation of Matthew from man to animal is stunningly created through delicate puppetry by Sara Kirkpatrick and movement director Zoe Cobb. Maureen Freedman's puppet design is in itself haunting - the cat's head is a grey mesh of jagged material which looks as if it could crumble at any moment, just like both of our heroes.
Feral is a wholly absorbing hour which left me wanting more. Intense and dark, funny and moving, dangerous and probing, this is a production which will embed itself in your brain as much as the eerie cat has rooted itself in Matthew's.
Until 24th October 2009
Reviewer: Terry O'Donovan