Speed Dial— VAULT Festival, London

Reviewer: Louise Burns

Writers: Joe Large, Hamish Lloyd Barnes, and Ollie Norton-Smith

Director: Ollie Norton-Smith

Spies Like Us are only three years old as a physical theatre company, but their success for producing intelligent stage adaptions of literary novels is winning them accolades. Speed Dial is their newly created work-in-progress. Set on a 1970s university campus, the company have created an imaginative and, with some further tweaks to story and plot, what looks to become a terrific parody of the Campus Novel.

It’s finals week in the world of higher education, and the new novel by IC Drake is creating a buzz on campus. It’s taking everyone by storm— everyone apart from The Professor who is waiting for a very important phone call. We are not sure from who or why, and to distract himself there is a lot of running involved. The Professor is trying to escape something in his past, but somehow ends up in a worse situation, forced to solve a riddle involving a girl called Emily in grave danger, who may or may not be a loved one.

Slick storytelling by the physical theatre ensemble create the world, and although there is great fun to be had with dry ice and a desk fan, Ollie Norton-Smith’s terrific, tightly choreographed movements, and floating telephones, sometimes favour the visual over content. Writers Joe Large, Hamish Lloyd Barnes, and Norton-Smith have done well with the plot foundations of this crime story, although why the Professor finds himself in his predicament is not as clear. Nonetheless, the ensemble is clearly enjoying themselves, and when they trust the story as it stands the audience do as well.

Arabella Ockenden creates a simple yet colourful and effective set design. A wooden frame and door with frosted glass panel evokes crime novel detective offices where shadowy figures appear in silhouette. In vivid hews the characters’ costumes and vintage rotary telephones whizz above the heads in a rainbow of colour. It’s Singing in The Rain, meets Hitchcock.

Through clever, styled dialogue (sometimes garbled and difficult to hear in the unforgiving space of underground tunnels), the ensemble creates an enjoyable cast of characters, but it is in their physicality, that they deliver the energy. In particular, as the seemingly pompous yet daft and likeable Dean, Tullio Campanale receives many of the evening’s laughs. He relishes alliterations and puns, physically owning the space with comical swaggers and a phallic pipe. Ned Cooper’s Professor splendidly bestows his straight man an air of bemused dignity. The charismatic Evangeline Dickson is Terry, a perceptive archaeology student who would rather be studying English literature. She becomes the Professor’s partner in crime. As a performer, Dickson is captivating. Her physical movements exact, and delivery perfectly pitched.

It’s billed as a thriller and there are thrills. These arrive more often in the form of the ensemble’s dextrous performances, but there is a psychological element finding its way into the story. Somewhere at its heart is the human element. We run from the pain we don’t want to feel. Situations often feel worse than they are and can take some working out.

A welcome breath of talent that breaks from previously much-lauded templates that turn out farces under the same tired convention, this show is high energy and great fun. This company have delivered a passionate, and slick evening of theatre. An homage to Kingsley Aimis, who was of course also a great fan of genre fiction, the joyful situation comedy of David Lodge, and the physical embodiment of John Updike as The Professor who gets into trouble and runs and runs like a rabbit.

Runs until 7 March 2020

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The Reviews Hub - London

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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