Coventry Belgrade Theatre

***

The Arrival, a touring stage work adapted from the acclaimed illustrated novel by Australian writer Shaun Tan, is billed not as a play, but as a circus-theatre production.

Perhaps that's as well, for its interpreters or adapters, scriptwriter Sita Bramachari and director, Kristine Landon-Smith, co-Artistic Directors of the flourishing, award-winning Tamasha theatre company (the word, of Farsi/Persian origin, means ‘commotion', ‘bustle', ‘excitement' or ‘making a stir', and also denotes an Indian folk art form), have produced, whatever is on paper - just a dozen pages of spoken exchanges or soliloquy - only a flailing, butterfly attempt at some kind of meaningful story.     

That may be the purpose. What they give us instead is a dignified central black figure, Dele (the distinguished, almost Mandela-like Charlie Folurunsho), who – now elderly – runs or has managed (we gather) a kind of refuge for immigrants in Finsbury, London.

Folorunsho steadies the show. With him we meet a Vietnamese woman - ‘I have been working as housekeeper since eight years old' - and Chinese girl, who spends a chunk of the evening heartrendingly lamenting, while Dele, engaging poetry taken, one assumes, from Tan's touching Australian original, becomes a kind of Jedermann, wafting through and sometimes influencing the smidgeons of immigrant life he encounters.

The most effective actual theatre scene is the storm which (as in The Tempest's prologue) nearly tears their ship apart. Great excitement ensues, superbly enacted, during which Felix Cross's specially commissioned score, tiresomely and misjudgedly ubiquitous elsewhere (it clouded the snippets of dialogue we were aching for), rightly had a field day, and the choreographed antics were quite brilliant.

So too was a curious, Lowry-like scene of a behatted cast walking and dodging and wheeling in magnificently managed patterns: a classic set piece, performed with the precision of ballet. 

For this show was entirely centred on the extraordinarily talented ensemble Circus Space, whose acrobatics, with climbing ropes, a high wire and dangling hoop was not just spectacular, but top rate. The performers are young, or youngish; they ascend with alacrity, descend with terrifying gravity-defying tumbles, dangle and twangle and indulge in new-fangled high-flying that has all the freshness of youthfulness.

As spectacle, this show, with its compact cast of eight, was quite marvellous. Language was one thing that communicated itself: Folorunsho and Antoinette Akodolu's sing-song (I assume) west African, the Chinese girl's plaints, a Greek cast member's Hellenic lilt, created the sense of alienated intermingling, striving to unite, that was one of the show's themes.

 The dignified Dele played by Charlie Folurunsho

But not all fares well. Shaun Tan explained, in conversation, ‘The Arrival began life as a long set of written notes based on researched immigrant stories. I was trying to find points of intersection – those feelings and situations that seemed universal to all immigrants, like homesickness or bureaucratic troubles, confronting food and difficulty with language or customs.'

So far so good; Tan as an illustrator, an outstanding one, wanted to put words on the back burner and concentrate on the visual. This staging just does that; but as a result, we learn little about character, about experiences in depth, about encounters; about any kind of meaningful – as opposed to sketchy - ‘arrival', in fact. Here are a series of cameos, and of vignettes, that appear to add up to very little; plenty of the words were obfuscated, or at least distracted from, by the often quite banal score.      

No, the heroes were three. The set designer, Adam Wiltshire, produced a clever delimiting, domineering, almost quayside-like timbered backset (with underused side stairs) that opened up cleverly for a Staten- or Ellis-island sequence, whose ‘officialdom' (Tan's ‘bureaucratic troubles') sadly amounted to very little in this mostly nondescript script. Andy Purves, the lighting designer, picked out characters in changing light artfully, never intruding but always enhancing, picking out, lending stature, and showing off the acrobatics to dazzling effect.

And choreographer Freddie Opoku-Addaie, who spent part of his childhood in Ghana, was recently an associate artist at the Royal Opera House and is now artistic director of Jagged Antics, working with Circus consultant Glen Stewart, a specialist in ‘artistic gymnastics' and acrobatics, produced wonder after visual wonder.

Rope climbing is slightly ‘in' at present: it creates a frame, or eye-catching prologue, to several effective shows (Thomas Guthrie's staging of Purcell's King Arthur at the Bridge House Theatre, Warwick is one). But rarely can it be done with such wild imagination and glaring daring as here.    

So one is left, to a degree, with an Emperor without his clothes. Silences play a role here, and rightly so: they are part of Tan's original conception. But the most aching silence was the sheer deficiency of narrative. We cared about these individuals because we, the audience, were supporting them, the cast. Those sturdy ropes held them up. The tenuous story didn't. To 28-03-13

Roderic Dunnett 

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