Pros: James Cross is a one-of-a-kind physical actor with exceptional command of his body.
Cons: I found some scenes quite hard to grasp, which made the performance drag a bit.
Between January and March, the Vaults – an arts space underneath Waterloo station – opens its doors to a diverse programme of live events, theatre, stand-up comedy, circus and even opera. The Vault Festival – which had a soft launch in 2012, before becoming a staple in the London theatre scene – now sees hundreds of artists presenting their material in its several tunnels during a six-week span, with thousands of spectators flocking there every evening.
Scenes From An Urban Gothic is appropriately staged in a tunnel called ‘The Cavern’, presumably for its dark and moist appearance, and the show relies heavily on the nature of the venue to gain resonance. The result can be imagined as the theatrical response to Fritz Lang’s silent film Metropolis. Arguably a site-specific piece and entirely devoid of speech, it features the unavoidable overhead rumbling of the trains that go to and from the busy terminal, which emphasises the already oppressive sound effects with unsettling realism.
Devised by Theatre Imaginers – Des Truscott and James Cross – and performed by the latter, this physical piece follows the journey of a man through a city that feels so uncanny that it appears surreal. ‘Gothic’ in the supernatural sense of the term, we’re shown thirteen isolated scenes in which the protagonist is confronted and eventually swallowed by a roaring and hostile metropolitan landscape.
Wearing a white shirt, striped blue tie, black jacket, super-skinny black trousers and pointed formal shoes – and using only a foldable chair as a prop – James seems to shrink progressively under the invisible weight of his helplessness, to the point that his body surrenders and is sucked into the depths of an eerily-lit auditorium. His strides, gestures, facial expressions and even the movement of his eyes are so vivid and engaging that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I only wish the final scene had been played with one of Philip Glass’ mind-blowing scores!
Occasionally, the sequences become a bit too obscure, referring to situations or contexts that are hard to guess from the entirely bare set. But this is a worthy risk to take whilst otherwise brilliantly representing a world that is partly detached from reality. Episodes involving the hectic streets of the city, an overcrowded train or a faulty ticket barrier are strongly evocative and easy to relate to. Regrettably, the performance loses momentum when the allusions aren’t properly defined and, on a few occasions, I found myself making an effort to work out what was happening on stage.
Scenes From An Urban Gothic is a hypnotising blend of mime, clowning and physical routines which benefits from many comic highlights, but equally and willingly causes discomfort. Miming quintessentially calls for immediacy and surrealistic miming is like a narrow path on the edge of a cliff: beautiful but dangerous. Theatre Imaginers have chosen an almost unexplored route but, with their highly imaginative contents and excellent acting, they have all the potential to produce some seriously innovative theatrical wonders.
Created By: Des Truscott and James Cross
Producer: Theatre Imaginers
Booking Information: This show has now completed its run.