Sunday, 31 August 2014

Birds of Paradise – In An Alien Landscape/ Clutter Keeps Company

Fluttering to the Scottish stage in February
In An Alien Landscape is a co-production between Birds of Paradise theatre company and The Beacon. It emerges from playwright Danny Start's residency with BOP, supported by the Playwright's Studio. Telling the story of Albie, who comes out of a coma to find himself compelled to paint, it discusses how art can be created to make sense of life. 
Founded in 1990 by a group of disabled activists as part of the Glasgow City of Culture, BOP has always sought to encourage more inclusion of disabled people in the arts. Their efforts have contributed to wider accessibility to colleges, training, and career development for disabled artists, while their own productions have become adventurous in finding new work and serious content.
In An Alien Landscape, says playwright Danny Start, "is based on true life experience. The Protagonist, Albie, is based upon a friend of mine who struggled with a super-abundance of creativity after experiencing a double brain haemorrhage. For Start, the play reflects his own struggles.  "My epilepsy has given me a particular outlook on life, where timelines cross and weave so close to the surface of everyday reality. I saw, in Albie and my friend, my own experience writ large and out of control – and this is what fascinates me."
BOP's reputation has been built on solid scripts and a faith in the potential of disabled artists to make work that does not need to be patronised. In An Alien Landscape allows a new voice to speak of their experience. [Eric Karoulla and Gareth K Vile]

Uncluttered and Companionable
Clutter Keeps Company has a brilliant lighting design. All nuance and subtle movement, it brings the simple set to life as a pop-up book, clear and coherent. It fits the story – a young boy deals with the absence of his father, the struggles of his mother and the romance of his sister. In a brief aside, his neighbour notes that he has Asperger’s syndrome: the production ddoesn't make a meal of it, but softly notes the awkward interactions and fantasies that stem from the condition.
There might be a great deal of creative, and funny, swearing in Clutter, but it has the tone of a story for mature audiences of eleven and older. There’s a flash of underage drinking, the hint of sex and country and western karaoke. With an ongoing narration, and simple central characters, the plot never gets flustered and the melancholic redemption of the conclusion ties together all of the strands, and no-one is left abandoned or worried. The content never really clashes with the style, never opens up complex ideas or goes beyond a simple moral. It is consistently well-performed. It nods to inclusion. It’s good entertainment.
It leaves behind questions. As a company, Birds of Paradise are all about being “agents of change”. Davey Anderson notes that this involves becoming a standard bearer for good practice. In their rather lovely promotional booklet, Angela Hogg, Senior Drama Officer of the Scottish Arts Council claims that BoP’s debut was “probably the first time many Scottish audiences had viewed work that challenged the aesthetics of theatre-making while at the same time challenging their own prejudices and perceptions of how the human story can present itself.”
Clutter Keeps Company is a solid tale, well told. Anderson does some nice script work, and the characters are believable. It has a happy ending: it is a feelgood drama. It emphasises that just because someone is a little different, it doesn’t make them weird – unless they are Mormons, like the hero’s neighbours.
However, the inclusiveness of Clutter does lean heavily on some fairly major able-bodied performers.  Certainly, they are not challenging ideas about aesthetics. That’s okay – Clutter is satisfying, with its traditional narration and straight-forward structure.
Ultimately, Clutter is conservative: Indepen-Dance are far more radical in their presentation and inclusion, and the day when Scottish companies are as confident as Belgians in casting inclusiveness will take the pressure from Birds of Paradise. Clutter is a gentle step towards understanding difference, a reasonable statement with impeccable liberal credentials. There’s an exciting debate around inclusion in theatre, and although BoP have a history of allowing access, this production hints they could do with taking greater risks.

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