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At Tether's End

The Wonder Club
Trinity Centre, Bristol
(2008)

This is possibly the first show I have attended where our participation as audience members begins long before leaving the house. All ticket holders for At Tether’s End are required to bring along a photograph of themselves plus someone or something they love; ‘No photo, no entry’ threatens the website.

Herein lies the first decision to be made in this promenade and site-specific piece, orchestrated by Bristol’s The Wonder Club, whose work unfolds along similar lines to Punchdrunk’s, inviting you to wander freely and make your own choices about the story you follow. When we arrive at the Trinity Centre, a huge gothic-fronted church at one end of the Old Market, clutching a snapshot we took in Venice, not too personal, not too trite, we are presented with our second decision; an envelope containing the play’s ending, not to be opened until afterwards. Its like a challenge: I follow the rules and leave the envelope sealed but wonder how many rebels chose this as their first step in creating their own story, as the performance invites.

Our entrance to the church makes a quietly unsettling first impression. A procession of mourners bearing a huge coffin and singing in Latin lead us upstairs towards a skeletal alter, constructed of thin wooden beams. Gravestones, fairgrounds, landscapes and a dominating cross are woven together like criss-crossing bones, some bearing gaudy fairytale lights, some encasing white plaster ghouls. After a brief introductory scene, we are free to go where we please within the entire building: the brothel, the bar, the shops, the local house, all magnificently constructed from recycled cardboard into a life-size street.

The site-specific setting and the freedom of audience members disguises what is actually a well crafted and carefully controlled narrative delving into the local history of the Old Market in 1869. We find out from the outset that someone is going to die and someone else held guilty of murder, and while the middle section may feel as if it is taking you somewhere more sensory, outside the boundaries of conventional narrative, one of the production’s great triumphs is the simplicity of its storytelling, carried along by certain key episodes of scripted action.

In between, all the buzz of a real town is created in a toy one. The flurry of audience gossip hovers around like flies passed from one mouth to the next, making a treasure hunt for the next piece in the story. ‘Have you seen what’s in the butcher’s shop?...What was happening just over there?’

If you miss an event, it’s likely to be passed on as muttered gossip by the pub landlady, or a passer-by in the street. The friends you are with can feed back things they have seen on their wanderings. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether some people, by being caught upstairs in the brothel, or occupied at the doctor’s, were skipping some of the definitive scenes, many of which seemed essential to a coherent understanding of the story.

What the piece also does is create a bizarre mish-mash of realism and unashamed artifice flirting with the thoroughly surreal. A whole street is present to be explored, with some of its offerings, such as The Three Horseshoes pub, so real you can kick back and buy a pint in it, but in which the landlord spends most of his time sat in a steel bathtub on the bar. There is a particularly fine performance from puppeteer Emma Byron with a beautifully animated life size donkey, and details such as this make the setting come alive.

There are flaws in the clockwork of this ambitious and extravagant affair, however. Some of the actors are more comfortable than others in leading and maintaining an improvisation with audience members. Doug Francis is a commanding and quick-witted doctor’s clerk who ushers in his patients for a snapshot view of the surgery and whisks onto the next, but Colin Minney’s butcher makes meandering small talk that leaves you wondering if you’re missing something elsewhere. In addition, the fate of the photographs (that first all important decision) is mixed. Our offering had the intriguing fate of being chopped up as confetti for a wedding: an interesting journey for a romantic pic. However others are pinned up around the venue as a reminder of audience members past. While this plays into ideas of local history and the continuing motion of time through the surroundings of the Old Market, it seems incongruous, and at times distracting from the beautifully imagined and creatively constructed set.

But perhaps the greatest coup in the show is pulled off by the harnessing together of the fractured threads at the end. What emerges somehow simultaneously makes sense and still shocks, largely to do with the victim of the piece, someone we have all noticed but probably passed by. This subtle heightening of tension makes for a climax in which you feel as if you have seen and felt something moving and real rather than just participating in an elaborate installation, and the opening of the final envelope has the quality of an epilogue.

Aside from pulling together an enormous team of artists and performers to execute the project, directors Michelle Roche and Nick Young have also pulled together a range of dramatic styles and modes of presentation in a piece which manages to feel fresh, entertaining, unsettling and extremely accessible.

Reviewer: Lucy Ribchester