Review: Boy Blue Entertainment - The Five and the Prophecy of Prana - Barbican Theatre

Performance: 23 October - 2 November 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 24 October 2013

Boy Blue Entertainment - 'The Five and the Prophecy of Prana'. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Performance reviewed: 23 October 2013

There is a spectacular show in The Five and the Prophecy of Prana waiting to break out but for long periods of the first act it struggles to overcome a cluttered narrative and visual effects that occasionally overpower the live performance. The idea of using hip hop dance theatre to work alongside manga graphics to tell a traditional martial arts story of good versus evil is terrific but all the elements need tightening to enhance the overall added value.

I was worried about the dramaturgy even before taking my seat since never have I read a more convoluted programme synopsis with the action flipping backwards and forwards between ancient times and the present day as well as bouncing between the streets of London and the forests and mountains of an idealised eastern landscape. Although some of this narrative flow was enhanced by presenting the whole production in the context of live performance against the backdrop of a graphic novel, complete with projections of credits, speech boxes and even the promise of a sequel, it was often a jumble where key aspects of the narrative, although explained in the synopsis, were not obvious on the stage.

Another issue adding to the unnecessary complexities lay in having to absorb the attendant philosophies of both the ancient and popular modern cultures out of which fusion the whole concept seemed to derive. Five young delinquents are rescued from punishment for their misdemeanours (shoplifting, pickpocketing, drug dealing) by time-travelling Wang Tang, an ancient Guardian of Prana. He then trains them to become the next generation of the Guardians with flashbacks to explain how a couple of the original five went bad. The fact that the usually noisy hip hop audience was confined to just a few group squeals and a lot of uncharacteristic silence in the first act suggests that there was too much explanation and not enough action. A problem that was exacerbated by the overkill of two devices: firstly, in the inaccurate lip-synching of the performers with their recorded speech, which although calling to mind the dreadful dubbing of grainy black-and-white kung fu films, quickly became wearing; and secondly in the all-too-frequent resort to repetitive, slow-motion martial arts combat.

Putting these quibbles aside – and I believe that all these issues can be sorted – the performances throughout the cast were excellent. Tommy Franzén provided depth to the complicated central character of Wang Tang, the sole surviving good Guardian who battles the demons of scandal and drink (although for what reason, I was never too sure); his duels with the evil Choo Fang (Frank Wilson) were expertly co-ordinated; Michèle Rhyner – known as Paleta – was a revelation as the hyper-flexible, double-dealing Black Widow, Soo Lin; and the “young” five were a great group that we could easily empathise with, including the hard-working, overweight one who develops washboard abs (Theo Oloyade) and the ubiquitous hard-nut, reluctant trainee who becomes Wang Tang’s ideal disciple (Bradley Charles). In the second act, the ensemble is let loose to do head somersaults, flick flacks, one arm hand flips and press-ups and a variety of ooh-ahh tricks that had the audience finally enraptured.

The soundtrack by Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante was first class albeit blasted out so loudly that it often seemed to be distorted, highlighting extraneous hissing and crackling (although, for all I know, this is how it was meant to be). The soul of the work came with the graphics of manga artist, Akio Tanaka, as brought to life by animators, Yeast Culture, on the various screens (including a number of moveable, angular ‘boulders’ that doubled as a bar or parts of Wang Tang’s Dojo). This digital artistry did the job it was intended to do but perhaps the complexity of that story could be trimmed to provide greater clarity.

There have been some fantastic examples of long-running hip hop dance theatre in recent years and – in my experience – these productions invariably bed in and get slicker over time. I would not be surprised if The Five & The Prophecy of Prana , which ends on such a cliffhanger that a sequel should be inevitable, doesn’t follow this tradition of slow-burning, continual improvement.

The Five & The Prophecy of Prana continues at the Barbican Theatre until 2 November 2013.

Photos: Hugo Glendinning

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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