May 13 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   Iridescent dance

Traverse Theatre: Thurs 12 – Sat 14 May 2022
Review by Thom Dibdin

Birdboy, at the Traverse as part of Imaginate for just three days, sets out as hilarious a piece of physical dance theatre as you might want. But by its end, it has caught its audience with an altogether more thoughtful edge.

Even when theatre for children is taken seriously, the possibilities of depth and nuance are often ignored. Not so for this piece from Irish company United Fall, created by director Emma Martin in collaboration with performer Kevin Coquelard. Spontaneous, ebullient dance weaves in with a darker narrative to create something greater than either could represent.

Kevin Coquelard is Birdboy. Pic Luca Truffarelli

A bashed-up old car sits in the middle of a stage which is otherwise empty, apart from what appears to be an upturned cheep white plastic shopping bag – with long tendrils of plastic attached to the downward facing handles – inflated, so it floats a foot or so above the floor in one corner.

It’s all very creepy and ominous, not where you might expect great levity. And then, out of a sudden blackout, solo performer Kevin Coquelard appears atop the car, in what seems to be a superhero bird costume, strutting and twitching like a consternated farmyard chicken.

It is either very macabre or gently comic. Comic mostly. However, when Coquelard strips off the costume and sits in the car’s passenger seat, pausing to tune the radio, the whole thing begins to take a completely different turn.

manic dance

Suddenly Coquelard is jumping in and out of the car with intense manic energy. Over it and round it he goes jumping in one door and being ejected through the window on the other side. The car becomes a part of this manic dance, its lights turning on and off, the tape deck starting up on its own accord.

When the car radio and cassette deck start up, he lip-synchs to a collage of found sounds – snatches of chart hits, famous speeches, a recurring statement about reaching one out of a hundred people being enough and occasional fragments of children’s voices.

Kevin Coquelard. Pic Luca Truffarelli

Coquelard ensures that the laughter is like that as for a clown. As the tape slows down, gets chewed up or rewinds at speed, he is completely in synch, over-emphasising the words to the point of gurning.

Yet the layer of macabre is always there. That all is not well is probably more obvious to adult audience members, but it is all hilarious stuff for the younger end of the target age group of eight to fifteen. Particularly when Coquelard ends-up lip-synching to a hard-rocking version of Surfin’ Bird.

Sharp eyes will see the floating plastic bags beginning to proliferate, however, sharp ears will hear the harsh edges to the children’s voices: hurtful and condemning. A pause and shadow-puppet play confirms it. As the voices taunt, a boy flies through over a forest and down to a car. This one.

brilliant physical theatre tricks

As the dance re-commences with even greater ferocity and Coquelard introduces even more brilliant physical theatre tricks which make him appear to be levitating, he begins to tear the tendrils from the bags so they fly up and disappear into the wings. All the levity and squeals of glee die away.

The ideas here: of world of the imagination; a child driven to a quiet place where they can exorcise their ghosts; of the way in which taunts can hurt, maim and even permanently scar; of dreaming of freedom as a coping mechanism, all tumble out of the show – ready to be unpicked and at least subconsciously understood.

It is helped by a performance of rare intensity, clever choreography, direction which is always able to surprise and – not least – truly inventive work from visual designer Orla Clogher, sound designer Dunk Murphy and lighting designer Stephen Dodd.

As an adult, this is a joy to watch. Particularly with a packed audience of children who are allowed the freedom to express their own reactions to the show out loud. This is theatre to be experienced in the full – in the certain knowledge that it has the power to grab the attention when needed.

Running time: 40 minutes (no interval)
Traverse, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Thurs 12 – Sat 14 May 2022
Thurs: 1.30pm, 7pm; Fri: 10.30am, 1.45pm; Sat: 2pm, 7pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Kevin Coquelard. Pic Luca Truffarelli


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