The road to enlightenment is a slippery one, as this new offering from the superb physical theatre company Frantic Assembly demonstrates.
Imagine drunken lads on a night out clambering around dangerous cliff paths. In Heavenly, we discover three boys clinging on by their fingertips, doomed to a watery fate (or maybe just one of them will be allowed to go home to his mother...?). We see and hear the crashing seas although, on a stage where 18 mattresses and two pure white sofas are both carpeting and wallcovering, their environment soon becomes heaven itself.
The friends try to come to terms with their new surroundings, where anything they wish for materialises - from cigarettes out of an empty packet to their favourite pizzas falling from above. They start to enumerate the at-least 59 things they won't miss from their previous existence (eg, picking up a slapper for a one-night stand, when really all you needed was a cuddle), and go on to count the things they'll never get to do (eg "I never did see Harry Potter"). They relive shared childhood and adolescent experiences, especially when they first met, and wonder if perhaps they're not really dead but merely "flatlining".
While an amusing scenario, Heavenly also asks some serious - and some not-so serious - questions about death, dying and the after-life. What are the stages of grieving and in what order? Denial, rage, bargaining, acceptance, gluttony, flattery, donner and blitzen... Is it possible to bargain for your freedom at the pearly gates? Given another chance, would you change the world for the better?
The dialogue is as complex as the angles from which we view the actors. Imagine being in a theatre yet able to look directly down upon the tops of the heads of three people seated on a sofa. Not the usual viewpoint! And this production doesn't, by any means, present the normal viewpoint of contemporary theatre. It far transcends anything one might ever hope to see. I came out hyperventilating with excitement.
The three company members Scott Graham, Steven Hoggett and Liam Steel - who also direct - are in perpetual motion. Acrobatics and interchange are non-stop and the rapid pace never falters. Steel's choreography is in no way incidental, but rather an integral part of the whole production, whether the actors are climbing the mattressed walls or insinuating themselves around the twin sofas of Dick Bird's brilliantly simple yet dangerously designed set. Colin Grenfell's superb lighting plot and Nathaniel Reed's unique soundtrack score are as much part of the overall success as Gary Owen's writing and the fluid, physical performances of the three actors - all thoroughly reliant upon, and completely trusting of, one another.
This is physical theatre at its most exhilarating. It dares and it achieves. All the superlatives have already been used on Frantic Assembly. They are the theatre of the future.
- Annie Dawes (reviewed at Plymouth's Theatre Royal)