Disclaimer: I found this excellent one-woman play by Eleanor Tindall engaging, charming and frequently quite funny. The rest of the audience, however, were convulsed with howls of hysterical laughter at the slightest thing, like a jacked-up hen party determined to have the best time ever. True, it was a press night with a home crowd in for support, but it’s an odd feeling sitting amongst people who’re having such a different experience.
Of one thing there can be no doubt: Tindall’s deft and imaginative tale of a lost young woman’s peculiar fate is brilliantly served by Jacoba Williams. As effortlessly convincing in the play’s absurdist moments as in its more naturalistic passages, Williams is an utterly compelling performer.
Williams plays Cally, a likeable kid who we first meet as a prepubescent girl with a loutish older brother and an appetite for life. In her teen years Cally buddies up with schoolmates Carla and Leah, and the trio stay firm friends through the adolescent traumas and triumphs of breast development, sports days and first loves. After school, Cally and Carla share a flat and frequently a bed, though both are also attracted to men.
One such attraction for Cally is Jonathan Bolt, a television actor who she’s lusted after for years since watching him in a sexy Channel 4 cop show. Incredibly, a chance encounter with Bolt leads to an affair, the eventual exposure of which is a bombshell that blows apart friendships and signals the play’s shift into a surreal morality tale.
I’m not sure I was able to completely decipher the oddness of the play’s conclusion, but its strangeness felt apt and earned. Williams does perform the entire piece in a heavy brown bear costume, after all, and frequently scratches at her fur and produces gifts for the audience. Obviously it was bound to end with a ghostly vole – I should’ve seen it coming, really.
As Williams received her deservedly rapturous curtain call applause, I was happy to be at one with the rest of the audience in acknowledging an absolutely masterful rendition of a humane and quirky play.
Written by: Eleanor Tindall
Directed by: Aneesha Srinivasan
Playing until: 23 November 2019
Box Office: 020 7234 0486
Booking link: https://www.bunkertheatre.com/whats-on/before-i-was-a-bear/about