Belly of the Whale, reviewing outdoor theatre & reviewing children’s theatre

Reviewed by Flossie Waite
Ockham’s Razor, produced by Turtle Key Arts
Reviewed at Cutty Sark Gardens as part of Greenwich + Docklands International Festival
Touring nationally
until 16th September 2018

To enter the belly of the whale is to go somewhere dangerous and unknown. In Ockham’s Razor’s latest outdoor show, three performers – Amanda Homa, Nathan Johnston and Stefano di Renzo – take turns entering a strange space, a giant semi-circular structure which transforms from see-saw to slide, cradle to skating ramp, each responding to its shifting and unsettled status in different ways. Johnston exploits the structure’s movements to have the most fun, sliding down its sides with a big smile on his face; Homa struggles to get a grip, thrown limply from side to side like a ship’s passenger on turbulent waters; di Ronzo rides the waves, remaining still and staring calmly out while the floor rocks violently beneath his feet. Individually and with aerial ropes, tight ropes, dance and acrobatics, they explore this fourth character, whose shape (the wooden beams are like ribs), movement (a rhythmic rocking like breath or heartbeat), and ability to metamorphose make the structure seem alive, both dangerous and fragile at once. Alone, the performers each find ways to cope with the challenges presented by the structure the company have affectionately termed ‘the beast’, but it’s in working together that the experience becomes joyful – they master rather than manage it. Accompanied by live music composed and played by Gabriele Pierro, Belly of the Whale is thrilling and breathtaking, wordlessly speaking to the human experience.

Photo: Mark Dawson Photography

A couple of days after watching Belly of the Whale in Cutty Sark Gardens, another company creating outdoor theatre – Tangled Feet – posted a blog: “Reviewing outdoor theatre: the missing piece of the puzzle?” A lack of criticism isn’t necessarily something Ockham’s Razor struggles with – their website is studded with quotes full of praise from places like The Guardian and The Stage, though I’m not entirely clear which of these are for outdoor shows. But the piece, written by Tangled Feet’s Co-Artistic Director Kat Joyce, resonated with my experience of thinking, and attempting to write, about Belly of the Whale.

The blog explores why outdoor theatre isn’t reviewed more, pointing in particular to short runs and a lack of critical discourse, and makes the case as to why a critical response to outdoor arts is so vital: it would capture and celebrate “the extraordinary but fleeting moments which captivate audiences”, and allow companies to better interrogate and contextualise their work. Much of what Kat Joyce says about criticism and the outdoor arts could easily have been written about children’s theatre. How is it, particularly in a funding landscape that so heavily focuses on accessibility and diversity, families and young people, developing new audiences and reaching local communities, that so much of the work best placed to succeed in those areas still doesn’t have the requisite critical recognition or rigour?

Kat Joyce suggests that outdoor arts need their own “specialist critics in order to develop a sophisticated critical vocabulary around the practice”. There are unique and exciting things to think about when watching outdoor theatre which aren’t adequately expressed or explored in mainstream criticism: “the way we negotiate the site and the space, the unpredictabilities of weather, audience, streetscape, the means by which the performance uses, disregards or celebrates the existing cultures and hidden or explicit stories inherent in the space…” Children’s theatre reviews must also tackle and contend with distinctive issues: the unpredictabilities of the audience, who can fall asleep or have a tantrum; whether critics have an obligation to take into account the often very vocal response of the young audience around them; what it means if the reviews won’t be read by the production’s primary audience; whether a production should be judged by its appeal to children, or the adults who are ultimate gatekeepers to the work; whether we hold theatre for young audiences to a different standard, or as having a different purpose, to work for adults (should it be entertaining and educational rather than challenging, political and life-affirming?)

Photo: Tina Koch

Reviewers who only very occasionally dip their toe in the outdoor arts world aren’t best equipped to review it – I count myself as one of those reviewers. Watching Belly of the Whale, my response was overwhelmingly affected by and focused on two main things. The first was the environment. ‘The beast’, the show’s impressive structure made of wood and steel, rocks and creaks and looks and sounds, to me, like a section of a ship’s hull; my interpretation of ‘the beast’ and the performance is undoubtedly impacted by its incredible backdrop: the beloved British clipper ship, the Cutty Sark. How will my thoughts differ to those who saw it in the space outside Stratford Circus, the square outside Watermans Arts Centre, or in the streets of Salisbury and Great Yarmouth? How do I account for that in my review? Do I need to? The second thing that struck me was the huge and diverse crowd that made up the audience, and the joy of having such a high-quality, accessible piece of art available, for free, for everyone. But these two thoughts, whilst new and exciting to me, are pretty obvious for anyone with any experience of outdoor arts. I don’t have the background knowledge to be analytical. My surprise and delight can only get me so far.

My response reminded me of so many children’s theatre reviews by critics who rarely attend theatre for young audiences – they are surprised and delighted that this kind of work exists, they often find the show ‘magical’ without having the context for meaningful comparison, and they lament that more people aren’t reviewing it (though this doesn’t usually lead on to them covering children’s theatre more often). Perhaps that type of review is closer to the child’s experience in a way – you wouldn’t expect the young audience to necessarily have an awareness of the text (often there isn’t one), or the show’s critical response, the standing of the company or the venue. Perhaps my thoughts on Belly of the Whale are akin to the bystander who just happened to be walking past and ended up transfixed by an extraordinary event on their ordinary high street. But what that type of review can’t be is an extension of the production, that keeps its reader exploring what they have seen and thinking about it in new ways; it won’t set it in its wider context or, like the best reviews, write a response with as much creative craft as went into the show itself.

Belly of the Whale was one of my first experiences of outdoor theatre, but it was good enough to ensure it won’t be my last. Watch this (blog) space.

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

One response to “Belly of the Whale, reviewing outdoor theatre & reviewing children’s theatre

  1. Pingback: IF: Milton Keynes International Festival, Furry Tales & The Little Gardener |·

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