Out of this World

Mark Murphy
Quays Theatre at The Lowry, Salford

Out of this World is phenomenal—by which I mean it deals in extreme phenomena. From wall-to-wall projections and booming sound to the low-tech rigging of the aerial work at the core of the show, director/writer Mark Murphy marshals the full resources of the stage to examine what it feels like to ease woozily into a medically-induced coma. This is not dance, exactly, not theatre, but an experience.

Like Anthony Neilson’s seminal The Wonderful World of Dissocia, this show takes place mostly (or in this case entirely) within the head of its central character, Ellen (Sarah Swire). It opens with a disorienting series of images which lead up to the narrative’s catalysing event: a devastating car crash involving Ellen and her husband Anthony (Scott Hoatson).

This heart-stopping moment is captured through well-coordinated video (Pod Bluman), lighting (Lizzie Powell) and sound (Nathaniel Reed). The strobing, dilating spotlights of Powell’s lighting design I found particularly evocative, as well as the video work which at one point appears to generate a glowing heat throbbing behind the panels of the set walls.

As they involve the experiential elements of such traumatic injury, some parts of the show are hard to watch, and anyone who’s had experience of such accidents or had loved ones undergoing emergency procedures might find this tough to endure. The show is, though, tastefully constructed and deals in metaphor rather than gruesome detail.

Perhaps the most striking and key metaphorical images are those created by the aerial work, which is slowly and cleverly introduced to the performance in a series of disorienting plays with perspective. While it’s easy to become blasé as Swire is lifted high above the stage, counterweighted and guided by other ensemble members, occasionally you are reminded of the incredible height at which she’s swooping. The shapes and patterns she creates, combining with the large-scale projections, are varied—often simultaneously thrilling and haunting.

And when on solid ground, too, Swire is a compelling physical performer. Her agonised writhing as the pain and desperation of the accident are described are if anything more gut-wrenching and moving than the combined forces of the audio-visual work. It’s here that her performance, and Murphy’s pedigree as a deviser and choreographer, come into their own.

As this commentary might start to suggest, the strengths of the work are in its visual and visceral explorations of inward psychological states: pain, disorientation, hallucination. Where it is less successful is in generating an engaging story. The characters are mostly cipher-like, without the fantasias of the Neilson play which provides the obvious reference point.

There are moments of simple brilliance in the staging, and the sequences in which Ellen addresses us directly are striking and well-placed. There is, then, a cunning and smart dramaturgy behind the piece.

And the writing contains the poetic minimalism and repetitions now familiar of devised ‘physical theatre’ work. Some is deeply effective, for example one strand in which Ellen faces an audience unprepared and physically unable to perform the song expected of her.

Ellen and her husband’s history is also explored in several fragmentary glimpses which evolve interestingly, but it is overall fairly minimally sketched—and, to be fair, not what interests Murphy and his collaborators here. So this means that when we’re asked to empathise with the loss at the heart of the tale, we risk being left somewhat cold. The production tries to generate an emotional core for itself but I was longing for the pyrotechnics and aerobatics: more rigging rope, less heartstring.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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