first night

1000 Suns: An American Afterlife

Ben Weaver-Hincks visits a very different America.

Director Ophélie Lebrasseur discovered 1000 Suns: An American Afterlife at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last summer, and vowed to bring it to Durham. It is easy to see why. Set in the USA, 100 years after a nuclear holocaust, the production explores what might have happened if the Cold War had gone a different way. A refreshing change to the usual musical fare, this production from NADSAT offers the opportunity for actors, technicians and musicians to do something new. But with novelty, comes great risk, and there are moments when this admirable effort does not fully pay off.

Lebrasseur demonstrates a total commitment to her aesthetic, and it is an immersive one - something between the Les Mis barricade and an industrial wasteland - with even the programmes having a rough, home-made feel about them. The set is simple, but imaginative, with an 8-piece band playing on a raised platform towards the stage’s rear. Although this does necessitate some awkward exits on behalf of the cast, it is completely fitting to the claustrophobic crater setting continually alluded to. As you might expect from the technical credits of the production team, including tech direction from Rachel Read, the lights, sound and flies do what the stage alone cannot, and help to create a world.

Where 1000 Suns falls down, however, is in the conviction of its actors. Though there are some skilful performances from the cast, a notable lack of confidence means the audience never quite believe the stories they are watching. This could be, in part, the accents; bad American accents are one thing, but a failure to stick to them and a tendency to drift around in this respect give the impression that people don’t really know what they are doing, and the cast are clearly nervous about this. There is also a general lack of energy: reactions need to be snappier, movements need to be more assertive, and the dancing needs to be more dynamic. Most importantly, however, they just need to project: the script has some touching moments, but they must be heard to be appreciated.

Michael Earnshaw is perhaps the vocal and dramatic highlight of the production, bringing a depth of character that is elsewhere lacking, and a strong voice that makes itself heard above the throng in the chorus numbers. Tom Eklid likewise presents a natural energy and likability that translates well to his part. Although his continual tripping over props becomes slightly distracting, such clumsiness serves him well in his drunken scenes, which form welcome comic moments in an otherwise dark musical. Izzy Webster’s Easy Jo is another standout, her presence always a guarantee that energy levels are about to increase, and it is only a shame she does not get more stage time.

By and large, the music does not rely on strong vocal performances, but there could certainly have been more work done here. The music itself is an effective folk rock blend of the touching, the comedic and the atmospheric, with characters returning to distinctive motifs at various moments to signify particular underlying themes. Music is used to advance character in a way often lacking in contemporary musicals, which makes it feel both more sophisticated and more rounded than you might expect of a show hailing from the Fringe. The band, under the musical direction of Rob Collins and Rosie Jenkins, perform well, accommodating the subtle shifts in tone that the music demands. Barring some timing issues, and a lack of communication with the singers onstage - no doubt worsened by the positioning of the conductor - the music was a success.

There were clear technical difficulties on the first night - a faulty projection, and some dodgy microphone levels being the most obvious. But the technical vision here is clear, and all being well, future performances should benefit from its seamless integration into the performance. Effective touches, such as the timely and unobtrusive deployment of snow at a crucial moment, garnered audible reactions from the audience. Other instances, including the torch-lit opening to the second act, are conceptually fantastic, if executed slightly too sloppily to be completely convincing.

1000 Suns makes an enjoyable evening of theatre, and it is a treat to be introduced to such an interesting new musical. One can’t help but feel that with considerable further polish and confidence, it could be something great. For now, there are some strong performances, some nice ideas and a vision of what might have been - which is, I suppose, what it is all about.

1 March 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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