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Unfamiliar At Home – The Lowry

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Creators: Victor Esses and Yorgos Petrou

While there’s nothing like live face-to-face performance, it’s surprising how shows many have made a successful leap onto digital platforms like Zoom, with performers dialling up from home. And the perfect place to stage Unfamiliar, a very domestic story about two men wanting to have a child, is the home, and so performers and partners Victor Esses and Yorgos Petrou open up their doors as well as their hearts for a live digital audience.

With four cameras pointing into their living room and kitchen, Esses and Petrou use the webinar function on Zoom where viewers remain hidden and muted throughout, capturing, to an extent, some aspects of a theatre’s audience, and very different from other Zoom productions where the audience member is encouraged to participate.

The performance, too, is reassuringly theatrical as it begins with Esses and Petrou recalling key moments in their relationship which each man speaking memories into microphones, and it’s nicely meta as they discuss the plans for the show the viewer is watching. However, as they move on to discuss what they like about each other, as if they are reaffirming their marriage vows, Unfamiliar is in danger of being too self-indulgent.

But underneath these ceremonies, none more fascinating than when Petrou makes a pyramid out of plums, is a melancholy that makes Unfamiliar live up to its name. Also, as if aware that the show needs to open out away from their own issues, recordings of other queer people explaining their own attempts to create family are given their own sections, playing as the two men eat bread they’ve cooked in the oven.

Esses and Petrou provide further intrigue by hardly smiling, as if the obstacles they have faced in trying to have a child by a surrogate in the middle of a global pandemic have exacted their toll. Their anxieties for the future are made clear in the physical and tightly choreographed scene where the two men roll on the floor as if their dreams keep them awake at night.

Slowly over the hour long-show, Esses and Petrou reveal their reasons for wanting children and also, tellingly, their fears that other queer people may consider their lifestyle too heteronormative. Petrou’s friends say that he will be a good father but there is doubt in his voice when he says it. Esses’s family remain unsupportive, and one of the reasons he wants to have a family is to make up for the discrepancies in his. Together, the two men forge hope and despair in equal measures.

To create performance art, a form that demands to be seen live, over Zoom is a tough proposition, and yet Esses and Petrou have succeeded, and their piece stands out from the other shows made for a digital audience. Serious and important Unfamiliar charts a journey that is still being made. To underline how unpredictable the voyage is, the last scene is heart-breaking, and, like the show as a whole, it works perfectly on the screen.

Runs here until 25 November 2020

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.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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