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Whispers on the Waves

Philip Michell
Hijinx Theatre / Odyssey
Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre
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An impromptu children's choir sings “Jingle Bells” while a handful of men change into women’s clothing; another man stands elsewhere, waiting anxiously for something or someone; another sits, gloomily, at his office desk. This is all watched by a young couple hiding in a mysterious woodland shed.

A disconcertingly avant-garde vignette from a family Christmas show brought to us by Odyssey, the inclusive theatre group operating under the auspices of Hijinx, a company specialising in community-oriented work, and projects involving performers with learning disabilities; a company still managing to operate despite recent, much protested cuts in its funding.

Philip Michell’s script is inspired by the story of Artie Moore, the radio ham who, in 1912, from his shed in the South Wales village of Pontllanfraith, picked up distress signals from the Titanic two days before official news of the disaster reached the UK. Michell casts the unfortunate passengers as ghosts, attending on intimate family events across the century.

The couple, Sam and Ben (Sara Pickard and Iain Gibbins), who come across the previously unsuspected shed whilst walking in the woods, are newly pregnant; the actress has Downs Syndrome—whether or not her character does seems immaterial. In the hideaway, they discover antique items—photo albums, vintage telephones, gas masks—which seem to speak to them of their current uncertainties.

Meanwhile, they spectate as events from the past unfold—passengers assemble on the deck of the doomed ship, and make their way into lifeboats; their ghosts bring comfort to an ailing child on a 1920s Christmas Eve as he waits for his father to make the long journey home from work; a World War Two soldier has bandages removed from his eyes, marries his nurse, has several children with her, and grows to a contented old age in a clever montage (which drew delighted applause); a wheelchair-bound man fancies that he sees Neil Armstrong’s footsteps on the moon.

Evocative use is made of video projection (images of the Titanic, of ghost children, of Sam and Ben), and music (a recorded soundtrack taking in string quartets, pop music of all eras and eerie voices from the future; as well as sympathetic live piano accompaniment from Joe Hickles) and directors Gaynor Lougher and Jain Boon skilfully manoeuvre the ensemble (including pupils from Meadowbank Special School) to variously amusing and spooky effect.

Occasionally, however, thematic coherence appears to be lost—the communal dance with shopping trolleys and supermarket baskets to Shakin’ Stevens’s “Merry Christmas Everyone” could be interpreted as an uncritical glorification of consumerism.

As the piece reaches its conclusion, the lone man at his desk reveals himself to be a festive spirit awaiting his moment, and the messages which a postman has been passing to various characters throughout the evening turn out to be party invitations. The ending is celebratory and optimistic.

Hijinx has provided a heartening illustration of what can be accomplished with a large, non-professional cast when the project is underpinned by strong, emotionally resonant writing and imaginative direction.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith