Saturday, 10 October 2009

Beyond the Front Line - Lowry Theatre, Salford

Beyond the Front Line
Writer: Joel Horwood, John Hunter,
Chris Thorpe and Matthew David Scott
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

‘Beyond The Front Line’ is a unique collaboration between Slung Low and The Lowry which has been supported along the way by a plethora of companies and institutions including The University of Salford, The British Army and The Imperial War Museum North.

The anticipation for an evening of stimulating theatre feels almost tangible as audience members are divided and whisked away by army-camouflage clad ushers into a small tent adjacent to the Lowry Theatre, and in terms of adrenaline pumping excitement, ‘Beyond The Front Line’ certainly doesn’t disappoint.

This promenade production truly breaks away from the restraints of conventional theatre and offers a multi sensory performance of epic proportions, whilst keeping at its core the personal tales of men and women, who every day lose their lives in the course of their duty as British Soldiers. The main message throughout this piece doesn’t waver. We, as members of a civilised society, despite our political viewpoints on war, should take a moment to recognise and pay tribute to these people.

Slung Low’s ethos is to allow the particular demands of each story to inform the choice of venue and the vast, imposing Lowry centre is perfect for this piece. Audience members are surrounded from every corner and the hauntingly quiet setting serves to further build up tension.

Slung Low are undoubtedly a company of huge promise, and one cannot help but compare their energy and innovation to the work of Site Specific veterans Punchdrunk and Grid Iron. This technically and logistically complex piece is carried out with ease and military precision by a talented ensemble who deliver an energetic and compassionate performance throughout.

The beginning is particularly promising as the audience, taking on the role of the UN Inspectors, are led around the Lowry courtyard by soldiers explaining and reassuring us as to the safety and professionalism of the British Army, predictably yet still effectively followed by an explosion, symbolising that Salford is now under attack. As we are rushed to one of four army jeeps, ‘Beyond the Front Line’ continues to pack a powerful punch as each group of audience members are introduced to a different soldier whose life has been devastatingly affected by war. I had the pleasure of experiencing Peter Tooles’ brutally honest and frank private account.

The company’s philosophy also promises to use all the technology and resources available to them as artists in the 21st century and this is unquestionably adhered to in this production. From the moment the UN Inspectors are divided into groups and given headsets which feed information, right through to the use of the ‘talking pillows’ in the final scene, Slung Low are certainly creating a total theatre experience.

However their ethos also continues to mention that these resources are ultimately used to achieve the oldest of artistic aims – a good story well told, and this is sadly where there are inconsistencies. The final scene is particularly muddled and as we are ushered into an impressive infirmary tent, we are greeted by a rather long and pointless dance of hospital beds. Despite some beautiful live music and singing by Rosalind Hind, this ethereal sequence lacks any real content and certainly doesn’t give answers to what we have experienced so far. Of course Slung Low want audience members to have different experiences and interpretations, but this particular scene needed a better balance between abstraction and solid narrative substance.

Nobody would argue with the message that this production is attempting to convey and there are moments of brilliance within this fifty minute piece. However ‘Beyond The Front Line’ still feels very much like a work in progress, albeit one with great potential.
Runs until 17th Oct
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