Review by Daz Gale
A groundbreaking new musical is settling in to Riverside Studios as Cages promises to show us all something different. Less a conventional piece of theatre and more a unique live experience, its premise certainly piqued my interest. But does different always translate into a good piece of art?
Created by CJ Baran and Ben Romans, who are both credited as Creative/Founder/Producer/Director/Writer/Composer, Cages enjoyed a successful and acclaimed run in Los Angeles in 2019 and now hops over the Atlantic to make its UK premiere. Set in Anhedonia, the basic premise of this gothic romance sees a futuristic, dark and gloomy world where emotions are forbidden and hearts are locked in cages. It is there we meet Woolf, the boy with the red heart, who falls in love with somebody as peculiar as he is in the form of Madeline. It is down to them to show the world to love again and unlock everyone’s hearts from their cages.
More than just theatre, Cages is extremely original and different in its approach. Similar in vein to ABBA Voyage, a progressive use of technology creates a complete feast for the senses with inspired use of video. The theatre side sees actors interacting with characters played by holograms and other special effects on the screens which results in something that is always exciting to watch. The design elements are among the best you will ever see on a stage with jaw dropping use of 3D video and animation used throughout.
Cages is a show where all the production elements come together to create a truly atmospheric setting. Plunged into darkness in the space, it features fantastic use of light and sound. In that respect, it works very well as an experience. Where it falters slightly is the live theatre aspect in the sense that it doesn’t seem to add anything in to the mix. CJ Baran is utterly mesmerising in the lead role of Woolf but the fact he spends the majority of the show interacting with holograms loses the sense of intimacy a love story should have. You expect to see chemistry from two lovers but when one of them is a simulation, it becomes much harder to convey that, and as such something seems lost along the way.
The way CJ interacts with the projections on the screens is incredible to witness – it's just a shame he can’t interact with the other actors too. An ensemble cast are rarely on stage and don’t have too much to do in a show that is more focused on the technology and filmed sequences than the live aspect. It left me wondering what the live theatre side was adding in to the mix and whether it might be more cohesive as a completely filmed piece?
The music in Cages has been written to reflect the music people are listening to now. To that respect, you are left with a very modern sounding selection of songs, all of which feel like The Weeknd and Daft Punk were locked in a room together and told to write a musical. The problem with that is the results are varying. There are some undoubted standouts including ‘I Blame Time’, ‘Fugitive’ and the beautifully sweet ‘Somebody’s Somebody’ though it does feature uneven moments such as the less impactful ‘Lighthouse’. While the music used is refreshingly different, it did feel a bit too generic and altogether samey with so much use of vocoder, even Cher would say it was too excessive.
While I appreciate how clever and well-conceived Cages it, personally it didn’t quite land for me. It lacked a personal connection, perhaps due to the main characters not being able to share a chemistry on account of one being absent (though admittedly not the most artificial performance I’ve ever seen). This was a tough one for me to figure out – from a critical point of view, it is phenomenal production wise though not quite as fleshed out as I would have liked theatrical wise. A great idea with moments of brilliance but altogether uneven at its best and messy at its worst.
From a personal standpoint, it never quite managed to come out of its cage for me. In the programme, Ben Romans comments about the show being like a painting that you can love or hate but the reason to make art is to benefit and inspire people. That’s a statement I can really get behind as I always talk about theatre being subjective. While it may not have been to my personal taste, Cages does seem like a show that is bound to split opinion, so don’t take my word for it – go and see for yourself and make your own mind up. At the very least, you are bound to be blown away by the experiential side of it.
Cages plays at Riverside Studios until January 1st 2023. Tickets from https://riversidestudios.co.uk/