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Drowntown – Barbican Theatre

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

 Choreographer and Director: Rhiannon Faith

The world premiere of Rhiannon Faith’s dance theatre piece Drowntown for the Barbican is as gloomy and desperate as its title suggests. Rehearsed in isolation and staged for the cameras in Harlow, this 90-minute piece is a well of hopelessness and futility as six characters gather on a beach at the end of the world to discover there is no hope or chance of rescue.

Each of the characters has their own existential crisis to confront which overtime converges into a singular and unified hymn of misery. Each individual arrives to swim or perhaps to quite purposefully drown the eternal sorrows of their lives, except a contractor won’t let them enter the poisoned and deadly sea until the lifeguard comes – anyone who tries to sit in his high stepped seat is turned viciously away. So, they all just wait.

It is almost 25-minutes before anyone starts dancing in a show that initially nods to the great abstract theatremakers, gathering a group of unrelated people who are then forcibly contained first by the rules set by the contractor and soon by an external and unseen disaster that closes the beach, leaving these people with no means of escape or salvation. The context and the visual design by Amelia Jane Hankin is strong, a neutral palette with sparing orange accents and swirls of black sand on a white stage.

At various points movement ably represents the narrative troubles in blowsy drowning movements that move the cast freely across the stage, mimicking the rise and fall of the forbidding sea. Faith’s choreography creates these intense moments of anguish in which individuals and the collective demonstrate their turmoil and must support one another. The return to shore is never akin to safety, just an endless loop leaving them where they started.

But 90-minutes is a long time to fill and too much of Drowntown is repetitive both in terms of its theme and its choreography which it struggles to sustain. There are tones, even chapters within the piece but the focus on each of the six characters, some of whom speak, is ultimately too similar, and while the same outcomes being played out again and again is part of the point Faith is making, it becomes quite laborious to watch.

Co-devised with and performed by Dominic Coffey, Sam Ford, Shelley Eva Haden, Donald Hutera, Finetta Oliver-Mikolajska and Marla King the quality of the dance and the emotive nature of the performance is high, merging theatre and movement effectively. The cast works hard across a complex piece that demands a notable physical and emotional commitment.

The scene setting in Drowntown is particularly effective, creating the grim, eerie deadness of the town beyond the beach and the desperation of the six characters drawn to it, but while its theatre of the absurd frame is interesting, there is too little narrative here to make this a properly satisfying experience.

Runs here until 6 June 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Gloomy and desperate

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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