What a difference a year makes. Last year, Thistle N’ Thorn Productions put on this show having to make do with a theatre-in-the-round set up, which just did not do them justice at all. Back this year, with a new cast and in a different venue, they have transformed The Dolls of New Albion into one of the Fringe’s hidden gems.
The fascinating story remains the same. In a state of desperation, and with the burden of expectation upon her, Annabel McCalistair devises a formula for re-animating human cadavers using clockwork. This sets in motion a series of social, political and moral rebellions within the city of New Albion that drastically shape its residents lives and perceptions. Now, with end on staging, this glorious story can be appreciated in full.
Paul Shapera’s steampunk opera is filled with a collection of fantastically written songs that manage to say a lot using very little. That’s the story of the production really. There is very limited set, no backdrops and no spoken words – it is all in song. Yet, you learn so much about the main characters, their way of life and their reaction to the dead walking among them. Annabel, in particular, is utterly captivating, with a performance that communicates her broken heart and desperation very well amidst the furious process of invention, she revels in numbers and formulae which are her only solace. All the performers step up to the mark wonderfully and improve on the still commendable efforts of last year’s troupe, proving that they don’t need an elaborate set and prop collection to shine.
The choreography of so many actors on a relatively small stage is very impressive when they are all on it together, a fight scene in the third act being especially well managed. It being a small stage in an intimate venue, The Dolls of New Albion does struggle to hammer home the city-wide scale of subsequent riots and bonfires. It instead specialises in the close interpersonal interactions between the humans and the machines, which are utterly compelling.
The clockwork robots themselves are presented perfectly; not dead, but not alive like their human co-stars. They are not even zombies, because zombies at least have instincts. These ‘dolls’ start the play doing almost nothing unless prompted otherwise, and cannot even talk. How this changes between them and certain characters throughout the four acts is a wonder to behold, and you genuinely believe that the ‘person’ on the stage is powered by cogs and gears. Be it many characters or few, the show handles its cast very well indeed.
The powerful score, while still rising too far above the voices of those singing every so often, is deeply affecting. This combines with songs that practically scream their ulterior meaning. You do not need to be an expert theatre critic to read between the lines and pick apart the characters, which makes the show very accessible.
A stylised but sensible lighting arrangement adds to the mood, allowing the play to swap from scenes of warmth to cold and heartless moments very quickly and mirror the fluctuating characters. Everything in this show is communicated so well to its audience, which especially in a small theatre is vital. This is a show that grapples with big questions about life and death in a way that will not go over your head, while still being able to present these ideas with a strange beauty and sense of wonder. The Dolls of New Albion has emerged as a beautiful, intelligent and fantastically performed opera.
The Dolls of New Albion
Sweet Grassmarket – Grassmarket 1 (Venue 18)
Photo Credit: Paloma_Blanca via Pixabay