A Mouthful of Birds by Carol Churchill and David Lan opened the 2017 Platform Season, at TFTV’s Black-box theatre. Directed by Audun Abrahamsen and assisted by Alex Urquhart, the two hour show opened on Thursday for a three-night run. Influenced by the classic tale of ‘The Bacchae’, the premise of a Greek God meddling in the affairs of the mortal underpinned the interweaving stories presented throughout. Told through a series of short episodes, each character was seen to have a flaw, often relating back to the central themes of sexuality, gender and mental illness, whilst being intersected with references to Greek tragedy.
Overall, A Mouthful of Birds dealt very well with what was clearly an extremely tricky script to navigate. With an ensemble cast who were required to jump from character to character and physicality to physicality, Abrahamsen’s direction was clear cut, and dealt well with moments of potential discomfort or sensitive issues with considered grace. The cast eleven were consistent in their similarity as a ‘chorus’, led by Megan Davies’ Dionysus, who was powerful and well-defined as she moved amongst the actors with gravitas few could grasp through movement alone. The movement throughout was something I enjoyed thoroughly: Julia Levai’s direction in this area could not be faulted, as each sequence was elegant yet simple, matching the tone of the moment at each point throughout the performance. This was the defining opening of the play: a movement sequence to demonstrate Davies’ position, was not lost on the audience. The cast as a whole were apt in their physical ability, each being required by their respective stories to, at some point, incorporate movement into their performance.
Eliot Bayley as ‘Dan’ and ‘Pig’, was not only convincing, but pulled off arguably one of the most difficult characters within the play, without clumsiness or awkwardness. His performance as the ambiguous ‘Dan’ was simultaneously enthralling and terrifying, traits he carried into his dance with Christian Loveless’ Paul. I commend both actors, and the directors, for this particular moment, as it is undeniably slightly bizarre. However, it was presented with a well struck balance between humour and unexpected sincerity. Loveless’ gentle humour throughout provided a pleasant contrast to more intense moments, naturally falling into a much more at ease demeanour, whilst still harnessing a gripping intensity at the opportune moment. His sincerity was a joy to watch, and the dark humour that perpetrated many of the stories was welcomed in the midst of much more harrowing material. This was much the same with Ruby Sevink-Johnston’s vulnerability as the troubled Marcia, which was a well-established performance that allowed the audience to fully understand the slightly surreal possession that the scene demanded: Sevink-Johnston’s gentle humour contrasting with the much more distressing pain of her damaged mind, demonstrated a strength that was pleasant to see in such a difficult script.
This humour was carried further into the story, when in one of the later vignettes Ashleigh Thompson’s ‘Doreen’ was aggravated by the chirpy, tea bag seeking neighbour (played by Loveless). Thompson’s shift between self-reflection and full blown rage was mediated well, as she clearly defined her tones so as not to overblow, or completely fall short, of her target. Whilst coming into full force nearer the end of the play, her portrayal of ‘Ma’, the mother of a struggling alcoholic, was another moment of seriousness that demanded a level of emotional intensity that was strived for by many of the actors, however, for a role seemingly only designed to be buffer to the story of the time (which is by no means the fault of the actor or the creative team), Thompson successfully provided a friction point for Yvonne, played by Anna Jones.
Jones’ performance was, I think, the highlight of the second half of the show. Capturing both the dangerous temperamentality and fragile pathetic-ness of her character, Jones lured the audience into her world of alphabetical lists and mindless tasks, all as a way to distract herself from her one true vice. The clear variation of the character’s mind-set was evident in not only Jones’ physicality, but in the proxemics of the situation: isolated in the middle of the stage, with her glamorous friends to one side, and her mother, in her dressing gown, to the other. Her vulnerability was almost painful to watch as she succumbed to her cravings, and through powerful use of costume changes, we were able to see her personal battle, without it being mercilessly shoved into our laps.
Similarly, Esme Pitts’ ‘Lena’ was both frightening and heart-breaking. Occurring very near the beginning of the show, there was little lead up to the devastating situation of a woman in a state of postnatal psychosis, challenged by an unknown ‘Spirit’ (played by Georgie Hook). Pitts’ performance was well handled, clearly addressing the difficult emotions undercutting slightly distracting conversational overlap, whilst also not letting us as the audience become too attached to her: her epilogue further challenging the sympathy felt by the audience. The dance sections that intertwined with her psychosis seemed relevant, and despite some slightly clunky switches between the ‘acting’ and the ‘dancing’, the struggle between Pitts’ and Hook’s ‘Spirit’ was well choreographed and clearly represented the conflict the two were experiencing. Hook’s performance, much like Kat Spencer’s as the spirit of the ‘Princess’, was eerie. Although both actresses were demonstrating again a character there as more a demonstration of another character’s angst as opposed to a stand-alone being, both performances provided a believable personification of the inner evil, without overstating her malicious nature. George Doughty’s and Grace Downer’s performance of Herculine was one of the most poignant moments in the play. The monologue, first said by Downer and then repeated by Doughty, found a melancholic joy in the midst of a harrowing situation, as the single character battled to understand their identity. Both actors managed to engage with the character without stepping on each-others toes.
On the production side, a simple set (designed by Alexandra Gaunt and Carla Cole) was effective and well-used; the movable crates allowing for a dynamic space, lit well by Sean Byrne and scored by Scott Hurley. The costumes (designed by Alice Tones) were simple and clearly made to compensate for the physical demands of the piece, however, a few inconsistencies, such as the addition of skirts and shoes in the second half, slightly detracted from the elegant and effective two-tone image set at the beginning.
Overall, I felt like this team should be very proud to have created a piece of work that deals so well with a very disjointed script. My main criticism would be that in the moments where the script demanded a much more base-level emotional engagement with the characters, often the depth required was bypassed, or felt a little underdeveloped, in favour of more technically challenging aspects. By emphasising the ‘grittiness’ of the hardships many of these characters were presented to be going through, a greater contrast could have been set between the supernatural powers and the very real-life, believable issues portrayed by the characters. However, for an opening night performance, I was highly impressed by the stamina, the strength and the dynamism of the cast as well as the creative vision of the crew, and I wish them all the best for the rest of the run.
A Mouthful of Birds will be showing Thursday 2nd – Saturday 4th February, 19:30 at the Black Box Theatre, TFTV, Heslington East Campus, University of York. Tickets are £8 (concessions £5) and are available to purchase here, or on the door.