Pros: Very atmospheric and visually arresting, with original subject matter and some exciting choreography.
Cons: Didn’t really scratch the surface with the storyline or character development.
I once made a short documentary about a gypsy community in Blackburn. It was to show the many misconceptions people have about gypsies: contrary to popular belief, the guys I interviewed paid all their taxes, some lived in houses, and they made far less mess than the football fans in the stadium across the road – but then again, that’s Blackburn Rovers supporters for you… Tonight, Romany Theatre Company’s Our Big Land brought back some memories by delving into the secrets behind the gypsy community.
There were three main characters: Oceania, a venerable elder gypsy woman; her headstrong son, Roman; and a non-gypsy – or gorja – called Sophie. From a young age, Sophie has felt gypsy, despite it not being in her blood. The play looks at how Sophie comes to be initiated into the way of the Romany, and the spiritual customs that lie within.
The show definitely had some standout points. The set – with a large circle of earth in the centre and various rustic and wooden props dotted around – certainly looked the part; lighting and smoke added to the outdoorsy, dusty effect. Early on, there was some vibrant choreography as Roman and Sophie sized each other up in a mating ritual kind of way – far more impressive than the usual dance fare you’d see down in Tiger Tiger. And Oceania had some very evocative singing to do, that was nicely but eerily accompanied by her co-stars.
But for me, overall, it felt a little tame – more educational than entertaining. It seemed more concerned with getting the traditions, language and rituals of the Romany across, than it did in developing an intriguing enough story. The story seemed to be treated almost as a vehicle for more cultural exploration rather than the centrepiece it should be. It was a shame as I felt the set-up was good, and there was potential for some real drama.
I personally think this is a classic problem with writing a play set over a lot of different moments in time: here it started when Sophie was a young girl and took her all the way through to adulthood. It’s a problem because it invariably doesn’t allow scenes to breathe and characters to take shape: it just whisks the audience from one event to another. And when something interesting or dramatic happens during one of these events, there isn’t the recent context or references surrounding it to give it that extra significance. In short, the more a play spans time, the less suspense and build-up you can give to a key moment.
And in turn, the audience can lose interest. In this case, I definitely didn’t lose interest – as I’ve said, it was very visually engaging and the songs and stylistic movement took it away from being a bog-standard production – I just felt there were one or two things missing to give it that zip. But for a beautifully-presented and well-acted insight into a fascinating community, I’d recommend it.
Author: Dan Allum
Director: Amy Hodge
Producer: Romany Theatre Company
Booking Until: 8th March 2014
Box Office: 020 7582 7680
Booking Link: http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/booktickets/OurBigLand