Review by Harry Bower
Note: This review is for a thirty minute work in progress showing and is intended to provide constructive feedback on an incomplete piece of work.
Arriving at Sino Thai Restaurant in Waterloo for A Pinch of VAULT shows this year has been like arriving for a top-secret bunker. You’re met a few doors down and escorted through the streets in walking-bus formation and then ushered down a staircase, past the restaurant, and into the basement. Presumably once a storage area or overflow seating area, the narrow ship’s galley-like space has been turned into a makeshift studio for VAULT’s work in progress festival this summer. I describe it so in-depth because it feels super appropriate. Getting a glimpse at work in progress shows is a rare and exciting event. You could discover the next big thing, or be there to witness the seeds of creativity sowed at an early stage and then follow those creators on their journeys as they develop that piece.
That’s exactly how I would describe watching Changeling in that basement room. This experience felt as though I was peering behind the curtain, and being a small part of what will be no doubt a lengthy and painful process to refine a new piece of work. Three actors are awaiting the audience as we clumsily descend and take our seats. Each is sat quietly and dressed in white. When the metaphorical lights go down the piece opens with some poetic monologue about what happens to young women as they are growing up, both in terms of coming-of-age and in terms of their childhood relationships.
The premise is that Rosanna is known in her village as ‘the changeling girl’, a girl who, according to folklore, is not human. Instead Rosanna is said to be a fairy girl, left with her human parents by her fairy parents who stole the human baby for their own. Said changeling is then left to grow up as faux-human – but what happens when her peers begin to notice that she is not quite the same as them? There are some interesting concepts here, especially the part of the play in which the opposing view is explored. So often theatre places the victim at the heart of the story, but in what is the beginnings of Changeling, Rosanna is thrust together with her ‘leader of the pack’ popular girl bully, Evie. Evie’s own experience of growing up exposes her own insecurities, and we hear of her need to dominate in order to survive. The third girl, Miranda, is the only who doesn’t get as of yet a significant part of the narrative to play with. Instead she acts as a pseudo narrator, breaking the fourth wall and guiding the piece through its short thirty minute run time. That’s not necessarily a bad choice though, I suspect as the piece develops, writer Lowri Mathias will have plans for her.
At this stage the writing is interesting, but not captivating. I found the poetic verse to be intriguing to begin with, piquing my interest, but ultimately it became exhausting to listen to because of the vague and unfamiliar talk of folklore, and sometimes I genuinely struggled to understand the context of what was being said, and why. In fairness it’s probably because of the lack of time and development in the piece to better flesh it out and provide said context, but in its current guise I found myself fighting against the urge to switch off. There are huge plot points which aren’t currently explained well enough to add value to the piece, rather than enhance a sense of confusion – including the police interview with Rosanna which I initially thought was a clever way to feature flashbacks but ended up being a missed opportunity for clarity. The physical movement in the piece was out of place and out of context and too rare to be considered a meaningful feature. Again all of this this will come as the piece is developed – which is why I found writing this review tremendously difficult; to give a two star rating to a piece that is a far way off being complete seems harsh, but is reflective of where it is today.
The performances in the piece weren’t bad, but it seemed as though the performers were all suffering from a lack of familiarity of the piece, not least of which was the reliance on scripts – and although it could be explained away because the characters are all young and naive, it seemed as though there was an inherent lack of investment or belief in the source content which was preventing the cast from fully committing to their roles. The intimate environment will not have helped here – and as performers it is clear they all have huge talent in and of themselves; so I offer no damning criticism rather gentle encouragement.
I enjoyed watching that seed of creativity begin its journey to becoming a blossoming tree (I think the garden metaphor may be dead now), and although overall I found the piece confusing and not particularly engaging, there are some really fascinating themes and points of interest which have been crafted so far. The ‘awkward unlikable girl turned popular’ angle was hinted at, murder mystery angles exist, and there is possibility for humour lurking around each plot point too. This show is going to need a lot of Changeling before its next run (see what I did there?), but I can absolutely see a future in which I return and thoroughly enjoy my time spent in the company of the characters. I wish Lowri and the creative team all the best in their development of the piece and will be keeping a close eye on what comes next.
Changeling played at A Pinch of VAULT, part of VAULT Festival’s new and work in progress mini fringe festival. Find out more: https://vaultfestival.com/events/changeling/
Keep up to date with VAULT Festival as it searches for a new home ahead of 2024’s event, here: https://vaultfestival.com/