Dumbstruck – Fine Chisel @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 19 July
You really would have to be a rather hard-hearted soul to dislike Fine Chisel, the theatre company behind Dumbstruck; under Tom Spencer’s artistic directorship they create effortlessly charming work that belies the graft needed to generate such lightness of touch. Dumbstruck may not be without flaws but it is rarely far from raising a smile when the talented cast of five – switching fluidly between roles that require them to be multi-instrumentalists, singers, dancers and actors – are in full flow.
Fine Chisel settled on an intriguing premise – that of the loneliest whale in the world – and crafted a multi-stranded story around it. It is a good starting point for such a musically-inflected company as whales are indelibly linked in the imagination with the slightly dreamy idea of the whale song. They communicate through a form of music and are a natural fit for a company like Fine Chisel, who often seem closer to integrating theatre into their music than music into their theatre.
Dumbstruck has a lovely opening, with instruments played in unexpected ways to create a sense of the oceanic wild and the strangely alien sounds of the whale. It is an engaging start and as the play widens its focus into the Alaskan wilderness and Ted’s research station it shows huge promise as an aural existential fantasy; an ode to isolation, conducted through music, seen through man and through the great unknowable, unseen presence of the whale.
However as it opens out to reveal Ted’s journey and introduces the figures of Fiona and Mal, who both wrestle with their own increasing sense of loss, it is unable to sustain its focus on this initial premise. At times the production seems to suffer from a lack of confidence in itself; it lacks stillness and has a forced busyness as it flits from idea to idea with little time to settle. The performers are talented enough, in particular Robin McLoughlin’s Ted and Holly Beasley-Garrigan’s Fiona, that you wish they would slow down and allow their presence to wash over the audience.
Underpinning it all is the music and here Fine Chisel can do no wrong. The sound is gorgeous throughout, from the lovingly created ocean-scape to the finely rendered pastiches of 1960’s pop and folk, whilst even the transition scenes are underscored by a wonderfully jazzy sound that seems to channel the finger-snapping funk of Charlie Mingus.
With musicians this good – Carolyn Goodwin on saxophone perhaps primus inter pares here – it is easy to get sucked into the music and to forget about the production. This is both a blessing and a curse, it allows flaws to be glossed over but it also threatens to unbalance and overwhelm the production.
In the end the story of Ted does get lost, and the storylines of Fiona and Mal never quite match that first fascinating premise. The sum of these very talented parts never quite sustains the whole. However there are individual moments – the song dedicated to the salmon run is a marvel and is spirited recreation of a certain kind of folksiness that reminds and equals anything found in Christopher Guest’s brilliant A Mighty Wind – that suggest Fine Chisel are undoubtedly a company worth keeping an eye on.
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