The idea of The Dolls of New Albion is intriguing long before the lights dim and the play begins. Whispers of ‘steampunk’ among the waiting audience as if it were some mysterious voodoo force. As it happens, this is not far from the truth in Paul Shapera’s mini-opera, the events in which are all triggered by the manic efforts of one woman using clockwork to bring her love back from the grave. It is certainly a fascinating story and one which will not be laid to rest for some time. Expect to see this play picked up by other performers
The other immediately noticeable feature of the show is the venue. It does not take place on a more common proscenium stage – it is a theatre in-the-round, so the audience surrounds the stage and the cast. Unfortunately, it is because of this staging that the gears start to come loose. The problem with such a setup is that the cast have to keep moving around to make sure their backs are not to a section of the audience for too long. This is fine in a circus where everyone tends to move around at a fair pace, but most of the movement here is achingly slow, meaning their bodies are turned away from those watching far too much.
This has the effect of drowning out the singing voices – which are fairly impressive, when they can be heard. The score is so loud and dramatic that the lyrics are barely audible when those singing are looking the opposite way. Even when they turn, only the most powerful vocals overcome the music, which doesn’t allow the audience to fixate on the meaning of the words. They are too busy trying to work out what on earth they are saying.
The set is minimalist. . The only two objects ever on stage are a table and a large suitcase. Nothing apart from the rotary gears in one character’s chest contribute to the steampunk image the show is supposed to embody– filled with Victorian mechanical wonder and the mystique of nineteenth-century invention. It is all too plain to get drawn in. Such a story could have done with a more elaborate set and possibly some backdrops, so that the world which Shapera wants us to experience would be much clearer to all. This is yet another limitation of theatre in-the-round – large scale set design is impractical.
All of these largely pragmatic things equate to a terrible result. For someone sitting in the audience, it is hard to make sense of a story which seems like the cast are struggling to tell, and therefore difficult to engage with performance. The flaws are simply too obvious. Which is a shame, because the story itself has so much potential: the intrigue of using clockwork to reanimate the cadavers of lost loved ones and the way that it impacts society is at the heart of the opera. It is a brilliant collection of ideas which simply are not expressed in an environment which allows the story to thrive and be what it can be. There are too many restrictions placed upon it.
The cast do not quite do enough to hide the shortcomings of the show. The evening ends with disappointed remarks among the audience as to what might have been. It can only be hoped that this story returns with a grander look, a proscenium stage and with less emphasis on the score. If so, the fabled dolls of New Albion will have their plight told to the masses like it was meant to be told: with grinding gears haunting the Victorian streets.
The Dolls of New Albion
The Space on Niddry Street (Venue 9)
Until 19th August