Too Much World at Once
Box of Tricks
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This new play from Billie Collins is a coming-of-age story set just as a climate-induced apocalypse is beginning to engulf the planet, but there's also a running theme of lack of communication and secrets, especially in families.
Fiona (Alexandra Mathie) is a science teacher trying to teach a class about evolution and adaptation, looking specifically at migration, but her adolescent charges are even more restless than usual. Her 15-year-old son, Noble (Paddy Stafford), gets into a fight that has something to do with new boy Ellis (Ewan Grant) and leaves Noble mourning a dead starling. Noble's father is away working but his parents' marriage is rather shaky and he didn't react well when his sister Cleo (Evie Hargreaves), with whom he is very close, left to "save the world", working in research for the British Atlantic Survey on Bird Island in the South Atlantic.
And then Noble turns into a bird—specifically a starling—and goes on a flight overnight, turning up the next day naked in Ellis's dad's barn. After a lengthy attempt to convince Ellis that he had arrived there by sprouting wings and feathers, he hides in the barn for the next few days, not wanting to talk to his mum about it, who in turn keeps his disappearance from her husband and has to be persuaded by Cleo to report it to the police. Fiona also brushes off serious structural problems with the house, which is where she was born, while Cleo is worried about the disappearance of the birds on the island. Then Noble feels a bird's compelling need to migrate, the subject of his mother's lesson at the start, to the island where his sister is working.
The story is filled with blatant metaphors and cross-references, but there isn't a great deal of substance behind them. Cleo says the climate has now passed a tipping point and floods and other disasters are now inevitable—in fact are happening by the end of the play, with evacuations mentioned—while Ellis mentions how it's all becoming a bit like zombie films such as 28 Days Later or World War Z, but it doesn't have the atmosphere or pace of a thriller and doesn't tell us anything we don't already know about the likely effects of climate change if we don't reverse some of the man-made triggers.
There are, however, some lovely dialogue exchanges and a few nice poetic interludes spoken chorally by the whole cast. Grant livens up any scene in which he appears, with some of the most compelling being between him and Stafford plus a tender moment between him and Mathie, and Hargreaves makes an assured professional stage debut as the climate activist not convinced that what she is doing is making enough of a difference. While the younger generation is seen suffering the most, it's hard not to feel sorry for Fiona as she has to deal with her grumpy teenage son, a daughter panicking halfway around the world on a dodgy phone line and a house that's falling down around her, not to mention a class of teenagers turning into birds.
But overall, it's not clear what the message of the play is as the storytelling can be rather vague at times, a series of conversations that don't fill in enough of the gaps to make clear what is happening or why, and in fact nothing much does happen to the characters we see other than the bird thing within a two-hour running time (on possibly the most uncomfortable theatre seats in England).
But there is an interesting concept and much to enjoy in this new work that will tour the north of England after this initial run in HOME's Theatre 2.
Reviewer: David Chadderton