Review: SLAP Festival: The Mesmerist

By Katherine Baird

Yorkshire based performance company Northern Rascals brings a local and distinctive offering to the SLAP Festival with a piece that isn’t just visually stunning but emotionally stirring too. Set in a wondrously weird world, two angels, Alf and Annie (Anna Holmes and Sam Ford, company founders and the show’s directors) begin a chaotic friendship that threatens their stability while sparking new light in each other’s lives.

The things that first struck me were the costumes, designed by Jessie McEwan. I must say I was surprised when the billed pair of angels appeared, not in the wisps of white material and downy feathers I had expected, but in shaggy monster onesies. Yes, monster onesies, one a vivid green and one red, complete with little fabric horns and tails. Had I not read the programme beforehand, I’m not sure I would have recognised the pair as  angels at any point in the piece. Having done so, it was fun and curious to see such unconventional imaginings of the roles. As the characters unfolded the decision was clearly apt visually, as the two snuffled and scampered around the space in a way that was animalistic but also hilarious and even somewhat charming.

They are absolutely in no way terrifying creatures, but innocent, bright eyed and childlike in the manner of the illustrations in a children’s book. Children in the audience enjoyed the surface spectacle of colourful illusions and comical romping: there was an audible gasp as a multi-coloured umbrella became a spinning rainbow, a girl had to be restrained from leaping onto the stage to help during a technically simple but wowing lightning storm (although others hid), and peals of laughter could be heard as cheeky rogue Annie gnawed on everything in sight to Alf’s growing chagrin. For the adults, a deeper connection can be made with the themes of friendship and forgiveness, and of darkness and light. The Mesmerist succeeds in achieving the company’s self-described goal of being “fully immersive, engaging and relatable” while at the same time spellbindingly absurd. There is something so very recognisable in watching Alf stare, engrossed with fascination and adoration, at his treasured lamp. When Annie breaks it, his grief feels understandable; the following loving dance with a figure with a lampshade for a head a totally reasonable progression that could so easily make a person want to laugh, but instead strikes a primal melancholy that makes us want to cry.

It is a show that relies on unquestionable skill in its emotive performance, but also one with its narrative inherently woven into its technical prowess. The use of lighting is key, to create flashes of lightning, lamplit rooms, or even seemingly vast, isolating darkness punctured by tiny spots of hand-held torchlight. In the search for hopeful light, Alf finds Annie, and when after all their scraps he hands her a tiny glowing orb in the midst of surrounding darkness, it is truly and simply emotional. In a surreal world, we recognise human feelings of mischievous and moving friendship, and a dazzling beauty that has the power to strike wonder into us all.

The Mesmerist premiered at the York Theatre Royal 23 February 2019. For more information (including an early street performance version titled “Like Rumours of Hushed Thunder”) or similar pieces visit the company’s website here.

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