Simon McElligott and Natalie Morrell
The Knotted Project
The Studio, York Theatre Royal
In The Commuters, Simon McElligott and Natalie Morrell’s youthful company The Knotted Project employ slick ensemble choreography and wry humour to create an energetic, warm-hearted look at the world of work in the modern era.
McElligott himself is the likeable everyman figure at the centre of the narrative, a twenty-something graduate whom we first meet during his “daily grind”, commuting via crammed trains to an nondescript office job at which he’s been working diligently for a while now—enough to fancy his chances of promotion.
But his life is thrown off-kilter when he doesn’t get the hoped-for raise, and instead loses his job after a mini-meltdown at the office Christmas party. We see him trying and failing to find more office work, waiting tables, even running rides (and cleaning up sick) at a piratical theme park.
These vignettes are sketched with a light touch, good humour and, moreover, superb attention to physical detail. The company, working here with performers Michael Lattin-Rawstrone and Isabella Chiam, has developed a confident, flowing rhythm and physical language for the piece which at its best (for instance in the well-observed Christmas party episode) succeeds in making the familiar comically exaggerated.
The choreography draws on parkour as well as Frantic Assembly-like contact improvisation and ensemble work. Most of it is jaunty and energised; towards the end, though, there is a visceral depiction of the smothering demands of our always-on way of life.
In this we see one of The Knotted Project’s real topics: mental health, meaningful connections with our families and friends, and the balance between work, future planning and present happiness.
None of the observations offered is revelatory: the content of the piece does not shed particularly new light on these subjects, the characters offered are mere placeholders, and the depictions of the “world of work” are schematic to the point of simplicity. But the company has a winning way and, moreover, a bustling confidence in its movement.
As mentioned, McElligott is rock-solid in the central part and Natalie Morrell’s commitment to each and every distinct moment of her performance reaps great comic benefits as well as well-distinguished physical characterisation. Her precision is exemplary and adds a great deal to the choreography and enjoyment of the show.
Lattin-Rawstrone and Chiam are also strong and as a quartet the company operates smoothly together. There are moments at which the question of care—self-care, care for others—becomes crucial, and this is touchingly, if again not particularly originally, depicted.
The pumping, near-constant original soundscape and video interludes also augment the atmosphere. These, too, were modern though far from cutting-edge and excellently executed.
So while what the production says about working environments and work-life balance is far from original, there is enough energy and confidence in the execution to recommend this likeable piece of physical theatre as it continues its mini-tour of the north, and McElligott and Morrell are ones to watch in future endeavours.
Reviewer: Mark Smith