Way Out West, the Sea Whispered Me

Cupola Bobber
Green Room, Manchester

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Cupola Bobber is a two man performance company from the west side of Chicago: Stephen Fiehn and Tyler B.Myers. They are well known in America for their minimalist style of performance and yet they choose big themes to explore in their work. Some of these themes have included eternity, space and the concept of the soul through an aesthetic which involved making a universe out of cardboard and the use of 36 three-foot wood studs. They aim to dramatise minutiae and have been making dramatic happenings in the UK since 2007 when they took up an International Fellowship with the Nuffield Theatre at Lancaster University.

It has taken two years to develop this particular piece to the point where they feel ready to offer it to the public. This performance was a preview and is inspired by the sea and the sea-side. Why are we so attracted to both?

The performance includes elements of slapstick humour and the skilled use of the dramatic pause. The set is a black cyclorama in the form of drapes and a cream tarpaulin fixed to the floor. At the start of the 70 minutes this is bare except for another tarpaulin scrunched up in the form of a giant mound or possibly an iceberg. The pair enter slowly wearing pinstriped jackets and brown trousers. They are tethered together by a rope and perform a mime to the music of Flanagan and Allen which is playing on a wind-up gramophone they carry with them on top of their luggage and a small pair of steps. One puts a small flag in a little pile of sand and then moves on for the other who reaches it and sweeps it up into a handkerchief and tidies it away. They move round the floor performing the ritual for quite a few minutes and it felt like it went on just a bit too long.

Soon after this one of the pair jumps from the steps on to the mound which deflates very slowly. This was quite funny and lead to one of the highlights which was when this performer is wrapped in the deflated tarpaulin wearing a conical hat. He recites a very odd text about a range of objects which slide into the sea. At this point the other uses some ropes to pull up part of the tarpaulin on the floor and hoists it over his shoulder to reveal another one, which is blue, underneath. In this way he mimes the action of waves and then replaces the white tarpaulin back on top of the blue one which becomes invisible once again. This is a brilliant tableau but it too goes on just that bit too long.

They narrate observations on the sea and the sea-side towns we love and hate but this descends into some very odd physical activities and metaphysical ramblings which take away from the earlier meditative power of the piece. After one has made sandcastles in the form of little cottages there is a black out and he rolls around moaning in a tarpaulin for far too long while loud music blares. Cleverly the remaining tarpaulin is half hoisted and this acts as the screen for a final shadow show where the pair display a tableau. One stands posing with an umbrella and the other sits and plays the wind-up gramophone.

It felt way too long at 70 minutes and despite some clever jokes and funny clowning the piece didn't quite live up to its early promise. It was heavily influenced by the work of Samuel Beckett yet lacked the invention or the tension of the theatre of the absurd. There did seem to be an influence of Lewis Carroll in the nonsense of much of the piece but overall there was not enough humour nor dramatic point to the work. There is much that is of merit however and if certain sequences were tightened up and around ten minutes playing time lost it would have much more impact as a piece of theatre. Unfortunately in this form it fell between the two stools of not quite being able to decide if it is a piece of theatre or a piece of art.

Reviewer: Andrew Edwards

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