If you have seen the promotion for Mermaids’ first production of the year, “Tales of Our World” (direction by Bryn Jackson-Farrer), and found yourself at a loss as to what it’s about, I don’t blame you. Sitting in a long, rectangular, borderline-claustrophobic room enclosed by tall black walls at whose feet lay a scattering of cushions and blankets, I still didn’t know what I had let myself in for. I had been promised “live performance storytelling in an intimate theatre environment”; but “storytelling” can take so many forms, and besides, what takes place in a theatre if not storytelling?
The starry artwork of the programme and the mystical music that played as the audience snuggled under covers set the scene for what was to come: a magical space-and-time-defying journey through what I suppose were “tales of our world”. These were written mostly by the performers themselves, with three being submissions which student writing societies Inklight and SAND helped to source. These tales were so varied that the careful ordering of the pieces according to their moods added coherence to what could easily have been a sporadic assembling of mismatched monologues.
There were two overtly comedic pieces. “My First Kiss”, was told with wonderful gusto by Georgie Turner, who landed every gag with confidence. The description of the school disco we’ve all enjoyed or endured, backed up by coloured lights (well-orchestrated by tech manager Andrew Orr) and “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias, transported us back to the years of JLS whether we liked it or not. “Woman Vs. Wild”, performed with similar enthusiasm by Krishna “Kristy” Patel, provided a charmingly original perspective on Australian wildlife and some great one-liners.
These were followed by an understated yet touching performance by Finn Antrobus in “Jazz”. Arguably the best written piece prose-wise and bolstered by gorgeous piano music, this would have been even better if performed with just a little more acknowledgement of the audience. Catherine Potter’s performance of “The Dreamcatcher” (written by Madison Hauser) was haunting and atmospheric. Unfortunately I got confused halfway through – the narrative seemed to move from dream to reality – and it may have benefitted from some variation in movement to complement the well-controlled vocal delivery.
Juliet Boobbyer’s performance of “Night’s Haven” proved that sometimes stillness is more effective than aimless pacing, with the sleeping partner and the sound of rain on roofs helping her draw the audience in. Some lines were inaudible to those sitting behind her as I was; yet, it was another simple but tender portrayal of a character recognisable to many.
We then moved to two brave performances examining modern American society. In “Lesson Number One” (written by Tessa King), Jade Fagersten’s portrayal of a teacher in an active-shooter situation was near-perfect, capably conveying her disbelief and fear whilst using the space and addressing the audience with ease. Following with a potentially more controversial piece in “This Isn’t About You”, Caelan Mitchell-Bennett made a Hollywood story all too believable through a seemingly effortless delivery that hit all the right notes in terms of humour, pace and emphasis. More focus on blocking would have been effective: he had a tendency to pace along one side of the room which limited him somewhat. He expresses himself well through gestures and expression and it would be nice to see this complemented by greater use of space in future performances.
Not to be outdone, Charmaine Au-Yeung showed us that courage is just as essential when it comes to personal issues. The harrowing tale of loss told in “Hung Love” (written by producer Cate Hanlon), a title that now makes me shudder, was well-structured through flashbacks, using lights of different warmths to signal changes in timeline. Whilst her delivery was not always perfect – some lines weren’t given time to breathe and others were over-emphasised – these niggles were soon forgiven thanks to her admirable vulnerability and moving portrayal of grief in all its glorious complication.
However, the standout performance was that of Oli Savage, who started and ended the production. Granted, “The Pageboy and the Amulet” was in the form of a fable set in a fairy-tale world, making it rich in performance possibilities. Nonetheless, Mr Savage gave what seemed an experienced performance. His greatest strength is his apparent lack of fear of his audience. Performers walk into the audience’s midst like prey into the lion’s den, entirely at our mercy – so what greater revolt is there than to look us in the eye, to speak to us so directly that we forget to judge? Aside from great delivery and physical performance, it was Mr Savage’s insistence on commanding attention through unflinching eye contact that made him stand out. This is the hardest but most important lesson to learn in theatre: giving the audience the connection and intimacy we don’t get from a screen.
Having said this, I was thoroughly impressed by all the performers who chose to walk into such a small, enclosed and dark lion’s den. The final piece reminded us that the magic is not in the events we’ve been told about, nor in their people, places or objects, but in the very telling of the tale. And what an easily conjurable magic it is: one we should all try to appreciate, just a little bit more.