Earlier this year, Tessa Bide went to Athens: A Strange New Space is inspired by the stories she encountered while volunteering for several refugee organisations there. In the show, a mother and daughter are separated, and we follow the child’s – Amira’s – lone journey through unfamiliar territory. It’s a world as alien as a new planet. In conveying Amira’s disorientation, the production can leave the audience feeling equally disoriented. Experiencing Amira’s journey in this way is valuable up to a point, but the extent of the disorientation creates more perplexity than empathy.
Portraying a story inspired by the refugee crisis to children doesn’t require literalist realism – you can powerfully illustrate emotional experiences through analogy and metaphor, which is clearly Bide’s intention with this show. Unfortunately, though, a certain level of abstraction, when coupled with a lack of clarity, will greatly reduce the potential of the audience to connect with the character and narrative. Amira travels to outer-space – blasting off in a cardboard box, with a colouring book full of planets, appearing to don a space suit, moving as though weightless – but how and why she gets there, and what happens in the strange new place, isn’t always clear. This wordless, stripped-back show uses only a handful of props and a cardboard box, leaving much to the audience’s imagination. Perhaps too much work is left to the audience, though – more often than not, it isn’t clear what the sounds, movements and object manipulation are intended to signify or suggest. There is some lovely audience interaction and excellent comic timing, but these are isolated moments – the audience needs more to latch on to if they are to piece together the narrative or relate to the character.
It’s impossible not to believe in and warm to Bide as a performer – she is winning, charismatic and versatile. It’s more difficult, though, to be carried along by the stories she tells: A Strange New Space and the company’s previous work, The Tap Dancing Mermaid, are ‘like collections of patchwork pieces, many of them beautiful, but which haven’t quite been sewn into a cohesive quilt’. The stated intention of A Strange New Space is to serve as a catalyst for conversations around the continuing refugee crisis. In reality, it seems more likely to prompt discussions about how best to catalyse such conversations. The show is sure to leave children asking questions, but perhaps more to clarify the story than to explore its themes.
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