Reviewed by Flossie Waite
Created by Mark Arends for Make Mend and Do
Performances at The Old Vic until 4th April
For ages 7+
The Missing Light is the third show from theatre company Make Mend and Do. I’ve just reread my reviews of their previous productions – Something Very Far Away (first performed in 2012) and At the End of Everything Else (first performed in 2014) – and a lot of what I wrote about those plays applies just as well to this latest work. All three combine new and old technology, blending animation, film, puppetry and original music; all three explore love, loss and the passing of time; and all three share similar narratives, with the protagonist travelling into the unknown on a specially-created, quirkily-designed vehicle to find a loved one. As this suggests, Make Mend and Do have quickly and successfully created a style and way of working that is immediately recognizable and distinctly their own. Their plays are all set in the same unique, kooky, sentimental world, with a cast of characters who could be neighbours, in productions that utilise mixed media and draw from different decades to offer an experience that is as much a silent movie as it is an experiment in theatrical form.
In The Missing Light, we meet a happy couple living in a seaside town. Each morning the young man leaves for work in his fishing boat, and each evening the young woman waits by the shore, waving at the boat’s twinkling light as soon as it comes into view to signal that her love is returning safely home. One day, the light doesn’t shine, and the play follows what happens in the years after it goes missing.
The story is told with puppeteers working in front of several video cameras to create the scenes that play out on a projected screen overhead. It’s hard to know where to look – at the screen showing the full, final product up above, or at the ripple of carefully choreographed activity underneath as the performers move between the miniature sets, quickly pick up props, and expertly bring puppets into shot. The narrative is easier to follow on the screen, but the process of creating it is so much more compelling. The mix of methods that ultimately creates an imperfect version of several different art forms – The Missing Light is not quite an animation, not quite a film, not quite a performance, not quite puppetry – doesn’t sit completely comfortably in a theatre space. The choice to set it there only makes sense to me if the experience itself is about celebrating theatre, both its ‘liveness’ (as with the sometimes unfocused footage beamed live onto the screen), and its illusions (uncovering the work that goes into a performance). It’s like a theatrical version of Breaking the Magician’s Code, except that we are watching the secrets being revealed at the same time as we are watching the trick, and it is just as, if not more, magical. All the sets, all the props, all the performers, all the equipment involved in The Missing Light are on stage for the entire performance, and it is fascinating to watch the different ways they are used and brought together over 40 minutes.
A first-time audience member of Make Mend and Do will find The Missing Light as enchanting, imaginative and innovative as I found Something Very Far Away – as stand-alone plays, each show is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, offering both sweet simple stories and meditations on live performance and the limits of theatremaking. As a collective body of work, however, it’s frustrating to see theatre makers capable of real creative originality re-tread old ground: when it’s tricky to review their plays without repeating myself, the shows need to find something new to say.
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