Monday, 12 October 2015

Review: Pants on Fire – Ovid’s Metamorphoses

On Friday evening, after devouring too much pizza in Covent Garden, I headed to Earl Haig Hall in Crouch End to see Pants on Fire’s production, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The venue itself is a pub, in what used to be a British Legion social club, and Pants on Fire’s production is taking place in Room 2 or the ‘Pop-Up Palais’. It’s an intimate space, with the performance area located on the floor in front of eight or so rows of tiered seating.

The show is adapted from Ovid’s epic Roman poem “The Metamorphoses”, which is a collection of stories and myths that set out to explain the history and beginnings of the world, with the shared theme of transformation between the human and its natural surroundings.

However rather than keep Ovid’s tales of the Gods in their original setting, this show, which was conceived and adapted by Peter Bramley and devised by Pants on Fire, places the characters in World War II Britain, drawing on parallels between the two such as destruction of the world, the relationship between man and nature, and the inevitability of change and the need for constant adaptability.

On paper it sounds an odd concept. How can you pull a bunch of Gods from a Roman epic and expect them to sit inconspicuously in the 1940s? But, rather spectacularly, it works. And the links don’t once seem tenuous or far-fetched. There are some beautifully witty yet thought-provoking comparisons, such as the London Underground’s uncanny dualism as the underworld.

For the first five minutes of the show, though, I was a little unsure. And a little lost. But I can’t quite determine if it was a case of the performers warming into the show, the piece struggling to cement its style in the opening scenes, or whether it simply took me a few moments to adjust my approach to the show in order to be able to decipher the action that was unravelling (sometimes quite literally) in front of me.

However, from then on in Ovid’s Metamorphoses proves to be a fast-paced and hilarious piece of theatre, which is constantly propelled forwards, backwards and in every direction by the ingenuity of the meticulously choreographed staging and the unfaltering momentum of the performers. What is perhaps most impressive is the number of mediums through which the narrative is presented, from music and song, to film and puppetry. In fact, the scenes involving puppets are often the funniest, and that’s saying a lot from someone who isn’t usually a fan of puppetry.

Fundamental to every scene are four blank (scenery) flats, which become just about every prop, theatrical device, and position imaginable, without once feeling repetitive or over-used. The actors move as one with these flats, creating a constantly seamless movement and rotation throughout the performance.

Seven performers make up the cast, with each multi-roling around four parts as well as providing an effective chorus. The narration is also shared between the cast, and I loved how in this respect the narrative voice constantly changes, yet still remains constant through a maintained tone and delivery. This is seemingly another reinforcement of the notion of metamorphosis and the inevitability of change.

In spite of the evident multi-roling, the narrative never becomes confused, as characterisation is really strong, allowing for a clear distinction between each performer’s parts. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of characters such as Jupiter, Juno and Echo.

The music of the show is in a stylistic 1940s Jazz, with the actor-musician set-up enabling smooth transitions into musical numbers. There are some stunning solo performances, and the singing was noticeably a lot stronger during solos compared to the group numbers.

The ending of the show draws your attention back to the present day and the ways in which the earth is in a constant state of metamorphosis, and although it’s a clever idea, it does seem to lose some of the momentum and energy that has propelled this fantastic production along thus far.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is deserving of a much bigger audience than it seems to be currently reaching, so if you’re able to get yourself to North London before the end of the month, I would highly recommend this thrilling production.

*I was gifted the ticket for this show in exchange for a review, but all opinions are entirely my own.


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