Sitting inside a stiflingly hot and airless bar-cum-theatre at the Battersea Arts Centre watching the emerging ANTLER theatre company dressed head-to-toe in arctic-ready furs it was hard to resist summoning up that most over-used of precious theatrical clichés; performers that suffer for their art. Despite unbuttoning my shirt to a level that would certainly raise eyebrows at the Royal Opera House I couldn’t help but think that on this occasion the audience had got it relatively easy.
Visiting an Edinburgh preview show is always a refreshing experience. So often going to the theatre carries the expectation of seeing a product in its finished form, and it is pleasant to be occasionally reminded of the process that goes into getting to that stage. This is particularly true of a show like Where the White Stops, which has the feel of a piece that has been born out of collaborative improvisation. ANTLER, founded last year, is a young company and they retain a freshness of ideas that is an invigorating contrast to the staid conservatism of much of the West End.
Their production of Where the White Stops balances a sense of surrealist whimsy with a faintly disorientating emotional depth that gives rise to the slightly strange feeling of being trapped inside Bjork’s superb video for Wanderlust. They employ a mixture of physical theatre and polyphonic singing to create a vividly original vision of a fantastical frozen world.
If at times the whimsy can veer uncomfortably close the more navel gazing elements of The Mighty Boosh then it is not long before ANTLER bring it back on course through a tightly written narrative arc that suggests that below the improvisational, physical surface is a keen sense of the importance of the traditional story.
The story is of the modern fairytale; a heroine going on a journey to discover the world, and within it, herself. The key to the freshness of these stories – understood by everyone from Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games trilogy to Hayao Miyazaki’s work at Studio Ghibli, and in particular Spirited Away – is in the development of a carefully designed world where flights of fancy can be accommodated within the dreamlike logic of the set-up.
ANTLER deserves credit for creating a similarly strong sense of place within Where the White Stops despite the bare set and the minimal information delivered through the plot. The cast have taken the old writers principle of ‘show don’t tell’ to heart and there is a refreshing lack of expositional dialogue to contend with – and when there is, it is often complimented with a very post-modern nod to the audience.
The result of this is a world that contains a weighty emotional punch under its sweet surface; what could have been a light, ethereal experience has been turned into something more heartfelt and substantial. The story of Crab and her adventures in an unknown, surreal, often-silent world brought to mind Shaun Tan’s graphic novel, The Arrival; where questions of isolation, solitude and the necessity for hope emerge through the avoidance of natural language and the creation of delicately realised environments.
Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart’s Crab is an engaging heroine and it is easy to root for her as she travels onwards through her adventures. She is ably supported by a supporting cast that are largely brought to life despite the lack of dialogue. Nasi Voutsas as Crab’s mute companion is particularly strong and displays a gift for the physical demands of the role; like all the good silent performers there is a tragic grandeur in his actions and the feeling that the world he inhabits is slightly adjacent to everyone else’s.
However it could be argued that the company do not quite seem to be sure who its core audience is. Where the White Stops does not feel substantial enough for an adult audience but it probably could do with some more tailoring for it to fit comfortably with an audience in its early teens.
That refinement should not be too much of a concern for this is the point of an Edinburgh preview – its purpose is identify those areas that need to be honed and returned. This is even truer for improvisational productions where it is impossible to judge in advance how devised work will play to a live audience.
Some of the physicality doesn’t quite deliver and there are a lot of ideas bubbling around that are not always developed. Some ruthless decisions may need to be made about what is and isn’t essential but this is all part of the dramatic process for turning a show from something with potential to something the sits comfortably above the fray of a packed Edinburgh programme.
Where the White Stops is sweet, good natured, innovative and different and isn’t that pretty much what the Edinburgh Festival is all about?