Whalebone begins with a simple visual metaphor: a bright red folding umbrella is tightly secured round its middle by a Velcro strip. It pushes against the fastening, but ultimately is constrained. It’s a simple yet striking motif that will underpin the rest of the play – a play about bodies, and the space that they occupy. And it is this style of bold, image-based theatre that makes it one of my personal highlights of the fringe.
Whalebone tackles a serious topic and a somewhat abstract story. We are presented with Laura, who in the face of social pressures and confused body image seeks the only logical solution: step-by-step, full body deletion. Nevertheless, it’s presented with a levity and engaging sense of humour that propels the story forward, and allows the talented cast to highlight the more solemn elements of the play.
Narrative is mostly driven by puppetry-based scenes played out by the three actors. These scenes balance immense imagination with a commitment to simplicity, with actors creating puppets from everyday objects about their person. Each puppet is designed with thought towards the symbolic associations of the object used: tight corsets that restrict the actors at the start become free-floating jellyfish; a frail pirouetting dancer is constructed from the striking red umbrella and a pair of soon-to-be-popped balloons; a bra is stretched into the lips of a talking, narrating vagina. The result is series of layered and endlessly creative scenes whose relevance becomes increasingly apparent as the show moves forward.
These carefully designed puppets are generally well-manipulated, although the actors could do more to ensure the attention of the audience is drawn to the puppet and not to themselves. Nonetheless, the narrative moves sufficiently quickly, and the images created are so outstanding that this never becomes more that a minor issue.
Every time I think about Whalebone, it gets better – and it’s a piece I will be thinking about for a long time
In all other regards, the acting is spectacular across the board. Amidst emotionally challenging monologues from Laura, the three actors manage to eke out their own characterisation as storytellers. Luke Howarth’s brand of expectant, awkward-but-amenable audience interaction is a pleasure to watch; Luke Rollason’s wide-eyed, playful inanity gives the production much-needed energy and urgency; and Emma Brand’s calm control gives her a remarkable ability to evoke real pathos. It’s a balanced, well formed group that play off each other smoothly and make the onstage action gripping and memorable.
Much of the story is performed off-stage however; most of the dialogue that grounds the plot is in the form of pre-recorded voiceovers of Laura’s inner monologue (represented on stage by a notepad, slowly torn to pieces). This, combined with heavy use of music, and a lack of onstage dialogue or noise, means that sound design is central. Thankfully, it is very well executed. The monologues are clear and matter-of-fact – important given that they are our only solid connection to the storyline – and they’re powerful in their own abrupt fashion; the music was tonally spot-on, never overpowering or obfuscating the action of the play but instead reinforcing the current mood.
The production was not without its flaws: the puppetry slightly lacked technique and physical theatre was occasionally over-abstracted. But in the face of so many other exceptionally positive aspects this is all very forgivable. Every time I think about Whalebone, it gets better – and it’s a piece I will be thinking about for a long time.
A bright red women’s coat hangs emptily from a puppeteer’s hand, containing only the space where Laura used to be. Two other hands reach around the midriff with a bright red cord, then sharply tighten. And tighten. And tighten. Until all that remains is a knotted red cord around a crumpled red jacket. After fifty minutes, the visual metaphor that was begun with the first actions of the play is concluded in some of the last. Hatch It Theatre deal in simple, visceral body imagery – and they do it tremendously well.
Whalebone is showing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, tickets are available here.