Writer: Beccy Owen
Direction: Jamie Fletcher
Original Music: Ric Neale, Beccy Owen & Jamie Fletcher
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Dancing Bear is a new musical commissioned by Contact and presented as part of Queer Contact Festival, celebrating LGBT arts and culture in Greater Manchester. As Contact’s building is closed for major refurbishment this year’s Queer Contact – and the rest of their programme – has been redistributed to other venues in Greater Manchester. Hence the Dancing Bear World Premiere is impressively showing at the Palace Theatre.
Dancing Bear is a personal, heartfelt and honest exploration of the intersectionality of sexuality, gender and faith – with an additional glance at issues of mental health -that broadly embraces many letters of the LGBTQQIAAP alphabet (Google it). The show draws stories from several of the cast although manages to give every person on the stage a voice. As the character names match the performers’ real names it is reasonable to assume that the stories are personal and experience-based.
However, as the chosen format is more cabaret than scenario-based it is sometimes difficult to connect deeply with any of the personal narratives. The stories of these individuals – as fascinating and important as they are – are delivered straight to the audience largely without connection to the rest of the group on stage, rather than being told through the medium of song or drama. The clunkiness of format is not aided by the clunkiness of some of the delivery: the cast don’t appear to have fully settled into being comfortable with the material and in this venue. The main exceptions to this are BSL interpreter Katie Fenwick, who has a knack of integrating herself wherever the action is, as well as having her personal story included in the mix, and Beccy Owen and Owen Farrow (as his alter ego drag queen Davina De Campo) in their capacity of sort of co-hosts.
The songs themselves are instantly accessible and the best do linger in the memory, and Owen, De Campo and show creator Jamie Fletcher – who also plays drums, bass and guitar – have strong and confident voices. The band is effective but the vocal sound is uneven.
The title of the show comes from a running allegory of a bear who dances and progressively sheds his fur and, shunned by his own community, searches for a community of his own while he establishes his own identity and sense of self. Dancer Mike Williams is rather hampered by the bulky bear costume for much of this transition and it seems an unnecessary whimsical element for a show where the rest of the cast are being very straightforward about who they are and their journeys through sexuality, gender faith and personal well-being in the face of bullying, social isolation and mental health.
The faith element is a difficult one as they tackle various personal experiences with church-going and interpretations of the Bible in a way wobbles uncertainly between the personal and political.
Dancing Bear feels overwhelmed by the theatre. It would perhaps feel more comfortable in a more intimate venue where it looks less stripped-back – the set is minimal and the lighting design is flat -and audience interactions feel more organic. The show is ambitious and deeply well-meaning, and very carefully inclusive and precise in navigating the sexual politics of a very broad subject, but to this audience in this venue it feels out of its depth, overly-earnest, preachy and didactic, and fails to land any emotional punches beyond connecting with those projected by the audience. Dancing Bear has its heart in the right place and speaks bravely and fiercely but is preaching to the choir and relying on faith.
Runs until 7 Feb 2018 | Image: Contributed