Inside Tortoise in a Nutshell’s enclosed dome, we’re all lost – in the darkness, we’ve lost our bearings and temporarily lost our sight. The immersive setting plunges us into a sensory experience that replicates the physical feeling of losing your way or straying somewhere new – I find myself carefully tapping the floor and feeling the boundaries of the tent wall to check where it is safe to sit, as my eyes gradually adjust to the gloom (they never totally do). Impressive though the environment is it cannot be, or tell, the whole story. And yet, though themes emerge from the shadows – broken homes, missing children, friendship – the narrative remains largely hidden in this mysterious and puzzling production.
A boy runs away after a violent fight with his dad, only to fall and find himself somewhere frightening and unfamiliar. He’s not alone: there’s a girl there too, who rides in on a steam train and tinkers away in a cavernous workshop. This strange, fantastical land has the nonsensical quality of Lewis Carroll – things appear and happen with no explanation or relation to one another, and the boy seems to be either constantly falling, like Alice down the rabbit hole, or else climbing ladders, with no idea where he’s headed. Curiouser and curioser.
Though the puppets’ faces are lanterns, they do not help us find our way in the dark. Occasionally, sections of the space are illuminated just enough for us to catch glimpses of other ‘lost things’ (a huge plane, the Titanic). I thought these objects might eventually be fully revealed and explored, perhaps tying it all together and answering some of the many questions that I had – where are we? who are they? what are they doing? what does that mean? why does she do that? and who is that? and on and on. But The Lost Things offers very few explanations.
The darkness, unpredictability and disjointedness of it all make this a tense, unsettling experience. It’s quite a brave (and unusual) choice to create something so unnerving for children, and yet the audience seem enjoyably thrilled rather than genuinely scared. The Lost Things may be intentionally cryptic to encourage the audience to constantly think and question, and to draw their own conclusions, but the balance is off – it expects far more from the audience than it is willing to give. Even after I had left the purpose-built space, I still felt lost, and remained in the dark.
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