Review: Probe in May at The Place

Performance: 4 & 5 May 2011
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Thursday 5 May 2011

Probe 'May' Ben Duke & Antonia Grove.
Photo: Matthew Andrews

Reviewed: 4 May

Located in church halls and community spaces, the amateur writers’ group exists to provide would-be belletrists a chance to share work, hear feedback and generally commune with other aspiring writers. If these harmless literary groups are sometimes odd places for an outsider to be, with their gauche readings and arcane experiments with form, then it’s even odder to find one on the stage of the Robin Howard Theatre. It’s within such a frame, however, that Probe‘s third touring production *_May_*takes place, inviting us to experience both the gentle peculiarity of the writers’ group and the particular strangeness of one writer’s imagination.

May is introduced to us by Douglas (Ben Duke), an awkward middle-aged social worker and sometime poet. Abandoned at birth, May is a broken young woman unable to communicate with others and suspicious of the world around her. At secondary school, Douglas tells us, she discovered self-harming; slicing and stapling her skin releases her from “the pain inside her head” and becomes a form of refuge. When Douglas encounters the adult May as her care worker, she is living alone in a freezing, unfurnished flat, numbing herself in the cold.

May’s story emerges through spoken word (the script is written by award-winning theatre playwright Tim Crouch), dance and live music. May herself is danced by Probe co-founder Antonia Grove; a seeming figment of Douglas’s imagination, she appears when he speaks and collapses to the floor when he departs the stage. The narration slips in and out of movement scenes; Douglas’s words paint a picture brought to life by Duke and Grove, dance taking over from spoken word to illustrate May’s frustrated and disturbed mental state.

May undeniably deals with a dark and complex subject; but the framing narrative of the writers’ group frequently injects humour into the presentation, allowing the audience mental breathing space between the less comfortable scenes of May’s history. Douglas is sympathetically portrayed by Duke – fresh from his Place Prize success with It Needs Horses, another piece that combines darkness, levity and wounded characters. As May, Grove is a stunning performer; whether dancing (there’s an exquisite clarity to her folding and unfolding of limbs), speaking, or singing – apparently for the first time on stage.

New Art Club’s Pete Shenton was invited to direct the piece (also, according to Shenton, for the first time outside his own company) and there are shades of New Artiness to the movement material. Repeated gestures, focus on the arms and torso, little hops across the floor and flatbacked lunges give way to larger, more bodily tumbles to the floor as May’s mental state disintegrates. Atmospheric live music is provided by the capable Scott Smith, who also delivers the comic framing interludes.

Much of May’s structure and style owes a debt to literary magic realism – the girl made flesh from the author’s mind, her twisted fairytale narrative of abandonment and partial redemption, and a final wish-fulfilling moment of black magic in which she appears to be transformed into a cake. The concept is an intriguing one, and much of the work is well-conceived and performed. At times, however, Crouch’s script is hard to follow – Duke’s words are sometimes engulfed in Smith’s music, and while this may be the deliberate effect of a dense production it does cause some moments of narrative confusion.

Not a comfortable night’s viewing by any means, May is nevertheless a brave experiment in bringing together dance and dramatic theatre, and one that very often works.

Continues at The Place 5 May & Tobacco Factory Bristol, 13 & 14 May.
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Photo: Matthew Andrews

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