24 March 2016
Combining live performance, film, photography, music and dance, Contained explores those small moments in life that suddenly become charged and life changing. As the cast from 'Mind the Gap' present themselves to their audience the show displays clear political intent, says Colin Hambrook
Contained tells everyday stories of ordinary folk. With a cast of nine, we initially see each performer present themselves front of stage in turn, testing their introduction to the audience. “This is me. I’m fine,” says Damien Grogan eyeing the audience with uncertainty.
Setting up their relationship to their audience it is clear we are engaging with performers telling their story in as fluid a manner as the theatre space will allow, rather than as actors playing a character.
The Albany stage is stripped back to reveal the brick wall behind the dismantled theatre curtain. We immediately see echoes of the institutions typically inhabited by disabled people: hospitals, day centres, etc. But this is the theatre, a space not traditionally associated with disabled people. Immediately there is a subversion of what 'disability' means.
And as all the props: the microphones, cables, electric piano, video screens are assembled and disassembled on stage, this work becomes the spotlight for the unfolding drama throughout the performance.
What does how we present ourselves in public say about who we are? What stories do we choose to tell in order to convey the idea of what makes us, us? These are the kinds of questions the performers exchange with the audience brings to mind. But the exchange is on their terms.
In this situation they hold the power balance determining what gets communicated. “But don’t think you can tell me what to say” belts out Jez Colborne in his raw, bluesy, so close to the edge that it might explode, voice.
The lyric moves on: “You’re not my judge and jury” and he’s talking about an experience of being told by a preacher that he shouldn’t have been born, that he is ‘the spawn of Satan’. Yet, behind this personal story he is also talking about the experience of learning disabled people as a community being marked out as different by wider society.
Autobiographical work that tells uncomfortable stories is often criticised as mere catharsis for the performers - or worse - paints them as victims. But this misses the point. There has never been a space within society for the voices of learning-disabled people. Hearing their stories in public is in and of itself, a political act.
It’s not about being a victim; it’s about simply being heard. Many of the stories are dreadful. Shit happens to everybody, but disabled people, generally get much more of it. Unnecessary shit. Shit that wouldn’t happen if society understood how it disables people.
Mind the Gap take their audience through a complete range of emotions. Many of the more difficult stories are about finding the resources to cope in an impossible situation; how strategies are learnt and important life skills taken up.
So, for example Paul Bates tells a story of having been taken into care from the age of four; separated from his sister and given into the home of a bullying family. He talks about how he escaped into a world of TV soap opera, acting out his favourite roles and in the process learning how to protect himself and create a joyful persona despite rejection.
Paul's skills are validated by association with 'Mind the Gap' and we get a sense of the traditional theatre troupe living as a family through the staging of the piece. What is important here is the power connection. Most of us live at a shallow level of communication. Contained shows us that it doesn’t have to be this way; that a section of society that is all too frequently stereotyped and regarded in a derogatory fashion, can through openness and honesty, be more intelligent than the crowd.
As the performance unfolds, the cast work together with empathy and precision. They have a lot to deliver and the technique of having an outside narrator orchestrating and pacing the delivery works well in giving the audience a sense of being at home on the sofa with 'Mind the Gap'.
However, the lighting could have been more thoughtfully designed to give the intimate moments more gravitas. There was a stark contrast between harshly bright overhead lighting and virtually no lighting. The use of portable screens projecting the performers communication directly worked well but still the poignancy of specific moments such as the declaration of love between Zara and Howard, could have been better focused.
Above all Colborne gives an exceptional, compelling performance. His song-writing punctuates the stories of the rest of the cast with brevity and wit and acts as the central core around which the performances orbit.
The importance of giving space and encouraging learning disabled people to speak out with confidence cannot be underrated. Contained and the circle of projects it encompasses has created a valuable resource, which needs to be revisited and reformatted in different contexts for years to come.