From the moment of entering the venue at Project Atom Boi, the spectator is placed under surveillance and thereby alienated. Performing as a young filmmaker, Francesca Marcolina has a phone camera in hand and mimics filming footage of the audience. The overall atmosphere is eerie yet intriguing, with the cold darkness of the Vaults combining with the unease of being watched. On the stage sits a screen inviting audience members to participate in the production by picking up a whiteboard; this form of interactivity hands agency to the viewers and successfully eliminates the all-too-familiar awkwardness of volunteering.
The production opens with footage from the aforementioned phone camera being played in real time on the screen. The premise is that the performers are producing a documentary about Yuanzi’s (Xiaonan Wang) experience growing up in the Chinese town of Factory 404, a whole community dedicated to hosting nuclear weapons. It is an intriguing look into an unusual set of circumstances, and raises difficult topics such as the role of propaganda within the family. There are moments of great fun to be had: highlights for me included the transformation of a hazmat suit into a dinosaur and the use of a small moving light within the suit to represent radioactivity.
Movement through time is a recurring theme of the production, and this cerebral concept is condensed with remarkable smoothness, counterpoising futuristic science with a fascination with the past. The concept of time in language is contrasted between English and Chinese, raising how the future can be seen to move backwards. The show’s ability to translate abstract concepts into an audience-friendly performance is a triumph. Through whiteboards and on-screen projection, the audience are made part of a game of Pictionary, delivering prompts such as “Soviet Union”, “Leukaemia”, and “Doom” to usher in new scenes. The use of props and technology in this production is inspired, giving an impressive, tactile nature to the performance, for instance employing close-up exposure on the actors’ faces.
Project Atom Boi feels haunted by a sense of loss and loneliness; this is emphasised through references to death and doom, reflecting the existential dread of the post-revolutionary era. A lingering question in this production is by whom the story is told: it straddles between Yuanzi and an aspiring filmmaker. Is this the story of a director lacking direction in life, or of a Chinese palaeontology student diving into her own past? The narrative feels overall a little confused. Nonetheless, the performers of Ensemble Not Found (Wang, Marcolina and Kelvin Chan) are a charismatic collective and successfully deliver a spectrum of emotion from comedy to tragedy.
Project Atom Boi confronts a complicated subject matter that is little discussed in the UK, and does so with wonderfully creative use of props. This production goes outside the box when it comes to storytelling, delivering a multi-dimensional and thoughtful performance.
Produced by: Ensemble Not Found
Directed by: He Zhang
Movement Direction by: Ting-ning Wen
Atom Project Boi plays as part of VAULT Festival 2023 until 29 January 2023. Further information and bookings can be found here.