Review: The Life and Times of Lionel from company Forget About The Dog
February 16, 2016
The Life and Times of Lionel gives little away from its title, making it very difficult to form pre-conceived ideas in regards to what the piece might be about. Sometimes this can result in a somewhat lacklustre approach from the audience, but it instead becomes clear that emerging Leeds theatre company ‘Forget About The Dog’ have aptly utilised the fairy-tale-esque motif of titling their piece with a seemingly vague and non-specific name in order to achieve a universality and relatability to their piece, one that is often difficult to accomplish. Just as the lack of specificity of ‘once upon a time’ allows for a multitude of meanings to be imparted onto one world and the characters within it, this piece of theatre does the same, managing to simultaneously explore the mind of one man – Lionel, whilst raising questions about human nature that go way beyond the realms of the theatre.
The comparison to a fairy-tale is not something I had even considered before I actually began to write this review. But actually, it seems quite apt; the piece utilises stock characters and narration, whilst demanding imagination and an open-mind throughout. However, unlike a fairy-tale, there is a level of depth and nuance to this fresh new piece of theatre that clearly possesses the potential to cross the boundary of the amateur and enter the professional theatre-making world.
The cast take Lionel’s thoughts and blow them up, the entire space becoming a representation of the internal workings of his mind. It’s often impossible to distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality as we are given an insight into a fascinating mind, riddled with anxiety and feelings of a lack of self-worth. Characters from Lionel’s everyday world become larger than life as his mind instils them with characteristics he himself has created as a result of his own self-image. The actors’ ability to portray this is excellent; the audience are equally able to see the world via Lionel’s eyes, as well as being granted a level of distance which I think is crucial for the message this piece is trying to convey. In order to appreciate the opportunity to see the world through someone else’s perspective, one has to be able to see it objectively first, or a problem of relationality arises and it is impossible to recognise the difference between the two perspectives. It is the ability to achieve this that I think is at the heart of the play’s success, and credit must be given to the company for doing so; Josh Ling in terms of his unwavering performance as Lionel, and the ensemble (Robin Leitch, Leanne Stenson, Tom Claxton and Jordan Larkin) for so effectively portraying the ‘real’ versions of their own characters, alongside the exaggerated, subjective versions that Lionel creates.
It is often the case with experimental theatre that the audience get lost along the way amongst an excessive use of different theatrical styles and devices. Self-proclaimed by the company as exploring a multitude of worlds, ‘from 1950s noir, to a submarine and back to [Lionel’s] office, there is nowhere his mind doesn’t take him’, there are points where it feels slightly overwhelming in terms of the amount that is squeezed into a one-hour performance. However, the company must be commended for successfully doing so! Whilst I do think there is room for some honing down of the material that is seen on stage, trusting the audience to make the unspoken connections a little more, each avenue of imaginative thought that is explored is done with unfaltering energy and finesse. The stage is effectively transformed to convey each world, not through elaborate staging or sound/lighting effects – although the choice of sound and light is entirely in line with the piece – but instead through meticulous rehearsal and conviction in what is being done on stage.
It is evident how much creativity and thought is behind the piece, both in terms of the writing and the devising process, and the company must be commended on the energy and enthusiasm which has allowed them to create such a witty and fast-paced piece of theatre.