Hothouse

Original concept Kas Darley and Jamie Fagg
Devised by Teatro Vivo
Horniman Museum
(2008)

Punlicity photo

The Horniman Museum in London's Forest Hill has a large and elegant Victorian conservatory and this is the location for Teatro Vivo's latest site-specific production, a collaboration with a quartet of musicians, some from the LSO, who call themselves Metamorphosis. Approached through invitingly lit paths, the conservatory is set next to the most modern of the museum's new extensions. It presents an exotic refuge on a cold dark evening and arrivals are warmly welcomed at its entrance by Madame Wanda (Claire Little) who, for tonight, is hostess of what she called in her seductively French accent 'the best bar in town.'

The audience are seated at tables around the building where the house barman and waiter (Michael Chadwick) circulates to pour you a glass of wine and while you wait for things to begin a toweringly huge magician (James Henry Parker) and his assistant (Rebecca Peyton) go from table to table to intimately entertain you with a trick or two that reveal a magical talent of amusingly less dimensions than his physique. Meanwhile you can try to spot the characters among you who are going to be part of the performance. Some you can identify by their more theatrical appearance, or perhaps because they seem more inclined to start a conversation with strangers than most of the others around you.

There is a poet (Phil Desmeules), romantically bohemian in shirt-sleeves and red waistcoat, a bespectacled, rather dowdy-looking girl, clearly alone and with her nose buried in a book (Kas Darley: the Bookworm) and a glamorous lady in a shimmering gown (Sarah Jane Wolverson: whom the programme calls the Broken Woman) and there may be more; or will we all find ourselves playing a part in what's to happen?

Outside in the dark there are some rather suspicious looking characters, all looking rather pasty-faced and casing the joint through the windows. If they come in you'd better keep a watch out for your wallet and your jewellery. A sense of anticipation is developing and then the recorded music stops, the spotlights switch to one end of the building where the door bursts open and, as the performers take position, that shifty crew come in carrying instruments. They are the band and, after a moment's hush as they pass through the assembly, they strike up their seductive tango-accented music.

These are more than just musicians. They seem to have some magical control over people - or is it simply the tango sound itself that is exercising its spell? As they move down and among the gathering we see the dance beginning to reveal individual characters. As others move sinuously to the music the poet is fighting some phantom adversary, for instance, and what is going on between Wanda and the waiter and why are the musicians ganging up on him?

There is some formal entertainment, MC-ed by Wanda: a sensuous song from the barman and more conjuring from the laid-back magician, its technical dexterity unsupported by the usual confident patter and slick presentation of a more skilled illusionist Then the musicians take control again and a drama ensues as the poet abandons the elegant woman and begins to seduce the bookworm who casts aside her spectacles and book and begins to blossom before the poet is made to abandon her.

He is driven out of the conservatory, the elegant lady is outside too and the magician's glamorous assistant has also got involved - is she a previous conquest? - and is brandishing a deadly hat pin. There is no need to join them in the cold, we can see what is happening clearly through the windows, meanwhile the dance goes on

The key to this performance is its emphasis on the potency of the music and its success owes much to the musicians who show a dramatic skill that matches their fine playing. The plot, as such, is something of a cliché, but the actors play it with conviction and at about forty minutes from the entrance of the band it leaves you wishing it went on longer for it has been continually engaging. In fact a longer piece would need a little more substance and I hope director Sophie Austin and her team will develop it further for, though originally made specifically for this location, it could be adapted for many others which could give the right dance-hall ambience and if it seems inappropriate for the drama to entirely unfold in the middle of the dance floor the audience could be encouraged to promenade elsewhere.

I certainly hope to see Teatro Vivo working again with these theatrically accomplished musicians who are Ellie Fagg, Jamie Fagg, Tom Goodman and Tom Norris.

The evening did not end with the audience's well-deserved applause but continued with a beginner's class in tango for everyone who wanted to participate - and after what had gone before how could anyone resist?

Ends 8th November 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton