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What the Thunder Said

Ed Harris
Theatre Centre
Redbridge Drama Centre

Imogen Rose as a Yowler, Felix O'Brien as Toilets and Joseph Adelakun as a Yowler Credit: Camilla Greenwell for Theatre Centre
Imogen Rose as Toilets and Joseph Adelakun as Chris Credit: Camilla Greenwell for Theatre Centre
Joseph Adelakun as Toilets, Felix O'Brien as a Wastlander and Imogen Rose as a Yowler Credit: Camilla Greenwell for Theatre Centre
Imogen Rose and Felix O'Brien as Keepers of the "Book of Infinite Wisdom" Credit: Camilla Greenwell for Theatre Centre

Ed Harris takes his title from the final section of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land and his main character’s big brother Chris always calls him Toilets, a nickname that’s an anagram of T S Eliot. But all that is Harris’s affair. It will be of no concern the primary school age kids his play is aimed at. What they will respond to is its lively theatricality and its relevance to their own lives.

Chris thinks he’s the man. He’s got a gang and thinks it’s time Toilets got toughened up: no more being the nice guy, learn to look after yourself and if that means hurting people that’s what you do right up to using a gun and killing.

In his dreams, Toilets goes on a different journey. Visited by strange creatures with long beak-like noses and big bums, he finds himself called to help them defeat the enemy known as the Big Bad in their world.

He (literally) dives through into their Wasteland world and there he has to face the Yowlers, creatures who have lost their souls go around trying to suck the souls out of those who have them, and go looking for the Book of Infinite Wisdom which will tell him how to deal with the Big Bad. In his quest Toilets, Button’s-like, asks for audience help to stop him falling asleep.

The Keepers of the Book of Infinite Wisdom say the way to deal with Big Bad is to back off,

But Toilets discovers there may be other ways of dealing with him and the Yowlers—for one thing they seem to be frightened of farts and even more important are scared stiff of people who are happy. You just don’t have to be a bully and brutal to handle life. You have to be smart but there is always a choice. What works for one person doesn’t work for another and you can decide I don’t want to be like that—and Toilets decides that he doesn’t need to be part of his brother’s gang.

Yes, it is a fine moral tale about bullying and violence but it is also fun and very engaging. Anne Bruder’s design uses a number of blackboards mounted on mobile platforms that roll around into different configurations with changing images chalked on them. They help make Amelia Sears’s production very fast-moving with music and lots of frightening thunder in Elena Peña’s sound design.

The Wasteland people and the Yowlers are represented by masks and appendages made of brown paper that make them playful at the same time as a little bit frightening. This is skilfully simple design that is perfect for a show that will tour into schools and be played to children who can sit on the floor around three sides of the playing space.

Working in such proximity places the success of the play firmly in the hands of the actors and this cast of three bring three very different charismatic personalities which helps every member of the audience to identify as they take it in turns to play Toilets, passing on his baseball cap to indicate who is being him as they relinquish that role to take up another one. It is a brilliant way of both making him everyone and suggesting that we may each also be all of the other characters—it is our choice.

Created in response to workshops with 300 inner-city primary school children and with input from research by developmental psychologists, this seeks to help children face their fears and deal with exposure to violence whether in the community, on television or in computer games. It will feed classroom exploration of bullying and fighting, but much more importantly it works as an hour of engaging theatre that entertains and stimulates—and not just the wide-eyed, exited audience but the scattering of adults also attending.

Lucky are the schools that get to see it as it tours the country.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton