Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet - confessions and queer premonitions from the bogs (The Barracks until 19 Nov)

Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet turns the tiny upstairs performance space in The Barracks (up the entry to the side of The Black Box) into a toilet, complete with the sound of water dripping into a cistern and four cubicles. Perspex doors allow us to see the four performers who are mulling over their present situations and pondering their futures in the safety of this enclosed and personal space.

TheatreofplucK’s new production brings back memories of experimental work in the Old Museum Arts Centre, the kind of rough and edgy performances that push boundaries and challenge in a way that can feel out of place in shiny new theatre spaces.

“This is the end of my life as I know it” exclaims one young woman after seeing the friend she snogged making out with a fella. She pulls off her prom dress and stands in her slip as the audience, packed onto benches around the walls of the dark toilet, listen to Alice Malseed tell her character’s story of hiding and blending in, feeling alone and shamed, about her method of making up boyfriends and then “killing them off” to disguise from her family her weekend visits to the gay nightclubs on Union Street.

Each performer comes out of their cubicle with their own tale. There’s a boy (played by Warren McCook) who hopes that rumours will spread and save him from taking the initiative to come out. In a lovely scene he looked through a mirror at the sparkling torso of Cathan McRoberts on the other side. A trans boy (Holly Hannaway) whose friends think he should be more girly and embrace dresses over binders.

Each of the four also projects their vision of how their life and the society around them might change, stretching their fears and experiences into sometimes quite dystopian futures. We imagine an uber-binary world where you have to “pick a side” (nothing new for Ulster they quip) with mandatory gender-specific clothing to be worn. Or an alternative world ruled by consent, squeezing any remaining spontaneity out of relationships for forms and signatures, and another that takes ‘equality’ to an extreme with the requirement for 50:50 queer:non-queer spaces and workplaces with catastrophic consequences for public services.

TheatreofplucK artistic director Niall Rea and playwright/actor Alice Malseed have created a rich set of characters with sadly all too believable back stories and traits. The vignettes are based on interviews and workshops. One lad corrects the appalling spelling of the graffiti that covers the toilet and transforms the crude drawings into fluffy animals, introducing a rare moment of softness into the more gritty than funny hour long drama.

James Watson brings his set design magic to play in the confined 10m x 4m space, and the use of cameras and projection subtly allows the audience to see around corners.  Rather realistic protruding prosthetics introduce another type of magic to proceedings. Music pumps out over the constant dripping. The clip-on LED lighting rings (£3 on Amazon if you fancy one!) added atmosphere and created the most memorable spacewalk in my history of Belfast theatre.

Any lack of courage could ruin the intimate lavatorial exposition. But the ensemble cast were on top of their characters and supported each other well, logistically and physically. Malseed – who becomes a pseudo-narrator – has the strongest voice and pluckiest delivery that carries across the noisy bogs. Hopefully we’ll see more of her writing and acting on Belfast stages before too long. Hannaway is playful and mesmerising while McCool encapsulates teenage reticence and McRoberts oozes confidence.

I fear that the some of the more explicit-looking sequences (things look worse than they are) will in practice exclude some younger audiences who would also benefit from imbibing this production’s powerful exploration of sex, gender, discrimination and possible solutions. That said, it was as strong a piece of experimental theatre as I’ve seen this year and certainly grabbed its bullish issues by the horn and delivered a finely acted and memorable performance.

Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet continues its short run in The Barracks as part of Outburst Festival with performances on Sunday 12 (7.30pm), Saturday 18 (5pm and 7.30pm) and Sunday 19 (7.30pm).

Photo credit: William Woods

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