The Yard Theatre is now into week two of its new season, The Generation Game. This week it’s the turn of two plays, Touching Distance and Finding Frank, to wow the audiences in its post-industrial Hackney Wick setting.
Touching Distance is a collaboration between Oliver Lamford and Phil Ormrod of Switchback Productions, and its an unusual beast. Not a straight narrative play, Touching Distance features vignettes of unconnected characters in different, and sometimes bizarre, situations. Luke Clarke starts us off as a narrator of sorts, playing an actor talking through the development of a one-man piece that he’s devising while scribbling in a note book, engaging an invisible audience in a discussion about what he should change and what he should keep. It’s a studied little morsel of theatre performance, producing a certain level of discomfort in the audience because it feels like we’re eavesdropping on his thoughts…
The four other cast members, Chiara Vinci, Cristina Catalina, Kas Darley and Rachele Rapisardi are involved in a series of strange activities – one actress slowly peels off her business suit, raging drunkenly in bra and panties at an unseen adversary as she repeatedly throws glasses of wine into her own face, while another (a fine soprano) executes a beautiful, lamenting aria while hugging a blanket for comfort. Another stumbles hesitantly through a complex speech that she is delivering to a science conference while the fourth compulsively scrubs and cleans the floor and herself, finally descending into a jerking, writhing fit. The narrator returns at odd moments to recount fragments from the diary of a local East End girl as she courts, marries and brings up her children.
Accompanying this dizzying display of activity is a compelling soundscape, matched by strange scenes projected onto the white-washed back wall of the theatre. Starting off with a sinister German film set in the medieval area that pits priests against weeping heroines, towards the end there are also a couple of minutes of cutesy Youtube videos of furry animals doing odd things, and in the final segment the show spins up with a rendition of the Special’s hit Monkey Man while the cast bounce excitedly around the stage. Now I’m not sure that I fully grasped all of the nuances of Touching Distance, but I was certainly exhausted by the end – the theatrical equivalent of constantly switching channels on the TV!
The other play that features in week two of the Generation Game is Finding Frank. Produced and edited by Amy Rose and performed by Olivia Preye, this is the story of a passionate musician who finds herself teaching musical therapy in a mental institution, with her first student being Frank, an aging rock musician who hasn’t picked up an instrument in years. Preye talks about her growing relationship with Frank and his emergence from mental illness, with occasional interruptions from recordings of interviews with people who have mental health problems – as each one speaks about their relationship with music a light goes on above different assemblies of props arranged across the stage.
Again visuals are used to develop the theme – moving rorschach inkblots alternate with an unseen hand creating washed out watercolour scenes and paper silhouettes of characters who are clearly experiencing mental anguish, crouching in corners with heads in hands. I found Finding Frank to be a delightful and gentle piece of theatre with great warmth, and that’s even before I mention Preye’s absolutely captivating singing voice. If you’ve experienced a few solo gigs you’ll be familiar with the trick of layering repeating rhythms and tunes – here she uses it to great effect to build up hypnotic harmonies that are absolutely breathtaking. For the karaoke fans, there’s even a bit of audience participation too!
Of last night’s two plays I think it’s obvious that I was more drawn to Finding Frank, which I thought was a real tour-de-force, but while it might have been less coherent Touching Distance was certainly a spectacle! With a ticket that includes both performances priced at £10 (plus the culinary addition of a six-week residency by a pop-up curry club in the Yard Theatre’s bar) I really can’t think of a reasonable excuse not to go along and experience them both…