Paired with Libby’s Eyes for BREAKING OUT is Sleepless Theatre Company’s Nine Foot Nine, written by Alex Wood. In the company’s words, it explores a “what-if” scenario that will get audiences thinking about a range of topics, from the balance between men & women, the human response to change, and our attitude towards people who are different.
Nate and Cara just want to start their own family. They’re in a happy, stable relationship and there’s no hint whatsoever of what’s around the corner… Two months into Cara’s pregnancy a proportion of the world’s women (approximately two billion) suddenly start experiencing agonising pains and appear to be growing. They break out in red marks that eventually mature into silver streaks – these women are known as ‘sprouters’ and anyone left behind is a ‘stunter’. Cara is one of the two billion. Against the odds she gives birth to a tiny baby daughter, Sophie, but something has changed inside as well as physically. No longer satisfied with staying safe in the confines of their house, Cara pursues her dream job in documenting and then participating in the sprouter revolution, leaving Nate to raise Sophie alone. Will Sophie sprout – and will her family ever reunite?
It’s widely known that to really test an idea you have to take it to the extreme – and this is exactly what Wood has done with Nine Foot Nine. What would happen if women were (in general terms) the more physically dominant ones? Let’s make them into giants overnight and work from there! The result is an intriguing piece of theatre that not only makes you reassess the current climate, but also allows you to consider how you might react if the status quo were to change in such a dramatic fashion. I’m not sure it needs to jump about in time quite so much; there is a lot of toing & froing, beginning at -2 months, before jumping to 16 years 11 months, and then going back & forth for the rest of the play. It just muddles things ever so slightly too much, and I’m not sure the timing of the ending brings it to a particularly satisfying conclusion.
What is really good about this production is how inclusive & accessible they’ve managed to be. There are subtitles above the stage (a little out of sync at times, but you can forgive that), plus some sections of sign language from Alexandra James (Cara). This is a wonderfully inventive way of opening the play out both to actor and audience, and it’s terrific to see this kind of thing being done more often on the fringe – it almost puts the West End to shame, making such a concerted effort on a fraction of the budget. I’m also enjoying the prevalence of deaf actors and BSL in productions at the moment, as the Watermill Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and both Globe Ensemble plays (Hamlet and As You Like It) are doing the same.
On first sight Verity Johnson’s set design seems quite unremarkable, but teaming that with some striking lighting (Jessica Hung) makes it incredibly memorable. A selection of white boxes and frames light up in a multitude of colours to create some stunning visual effects, mostly during scene transitions. The use of voice recordings helps to fill in the gaps in the timeline, with BBC news headlines and vox pops telling some more of the story. All of this together is rather ambitious, but ultimately they pull it off.
There is excellent work from the cast of three. For obvious reasons, most of the focus is on the two women in the story, but Paul O’Dea’s contribution as Nate does not go unnoticed – after all, it’s important to see the effect of the changes from both sides. O’Dea’s Nate begins full of hope and excitement about their imminent new arrival, but by the end he’s a broken man; unable to cope with the change in Cara’s personality and the actions of his daughter, each day is a struggle. You can see from the beginning that Alexandra James’ Cara isn’t quite as over the moon as Nate about her pregnancy, though the fact that it’s a girl probably wins her over a bit. James is incredibly expressive, whether in voice or in action, enthusiastically portraying Cara’s passion for the cause. Natalie Kimmerling is slightly stuck in the middle as Sophie, longing for her mother nearly all her life, but torn by loyalty to the father who cared for her every step of the way. Her inner turmoil comes across well, and you can’t help but feel for her as she’s faced with an impossible choice.
This production is a very good start to this show’s life, though going forward it could probably do with a slightly longer running time (so as to cover everything it wants in slightly more depth) and perhaps a rethink over the time jumps. Otherwise, a very intriguing piece of theatre.
My verdict? An intriguing and ambitious piece of theatre, presenting an idea and taking it to the extreme – the performances are expressive and passionate.
Nine Foot Nine runs at The Bunker Theatre as part of the BREAKING OUT season until 5 July 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office, including a limited number of £10 tickets for U30s and £22 double bill passes.