Review: Jamie Fletcher’s Dancing Bear @ The West Yorkshire Playhouse

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Jesus loved an outcast!”

Dancing Bear is the new show from Jamie Fletcher, which is currently in the process of being developed as part of The Dancing Bear Trilogy, a series of experimental films, publications and theatrical performances. The show manages to combine short vignettes and musical numbers with very hard hitting themes – aiming to engage audiences in conversations about religious and LGBTQ issues. The production seeks to encapsulate the struggle between points of view which at first might seem juxtaposed. Through frank, and at times brutal, exploration of this, the cast are inviting open dialogue between two communities who have for centuries been at loggerheads. Interestingly, neither community is idealised, with their similarities demonstrated through effective simultaneous spoken word.

The production immediately begins with the cast confidently breaking the fourth wall, welcoming the audience and inviting them to be part of the production process. The musical numbers are well performed, particularly those sung by the stunning and sarky Divina De Campo (Owen Farrow) and Becky Owen. The contemporary dance pieces (performed by Andrew Gardiner) are dynamic and help further the multi-disciplinary approach to theatre which the cast have opted for.

Although very relatable for anyone who was “forged in the fires of shame and denial and blah blah blah,” or experienced some aspect of the LGBTQ community, the show is equally welcoming, and well received by, those who do not identify as LGBTQ. Most impressive (if only for its simplicity) is the incorporation of Kate Fenwick, the BSL interpreter, into the cast. This doesn’t seem strained or unnatural, and raises the question, why don’t more shows include BSL interpreters? This is the level of integration theatre should be striving for!

The show invites honesty and conversation. The tone is never too preachy, or all-knowing, relying on personal experience and not academics. The cast themselves admit to not having all the answers, and some to feeling like they don’t have the authority to comment on the themes the show explores. It is this vulnerability that is truly refreshing. Cast and musicians alike are presented as individuals, unapologetic and sincere. In some ways the production is a microcosm of the point the company is trying to make, the cast represent themselves and their own stories. There is no offstage, only a fragment of privacy behind a sequinned barrier of dresses, making the cast incredibly present throughout. The cast don’t hide from you and they don’t hide from themselves. Using verbatim from interviews and Jamie Fletcher’s personal account of struggle between spirituality and sexuality gives the show a raw edge and unaffectedness.

With catchy show tunes, clever spoken word and emotional back stories, the show is a powerful celebration of all LGBTQ experiences; all the experiences that make people who they are. The audience can’t help but be drawn into the gay bar, or the drag queens’ dressing room; they too become a part of the experience. At times this can feel quite intense, particularly during a scene where Divina De Campo is viciously dragged from church and stripped. However, these are all integral to the audiences understanding of the intricacies and challenges of LGBTQ existence; exploring of where LGBTQ individuals fit into a community that doesn’t recognise them, and where that community fits into their own identity. The message of the show seems to be that God is who we need them to be – “God is a work in progress!”

Refreshingly honest and intimate, the cast hold nothing back, and nothing seems to be taboo. Perhaps we’ve become too accustomed to theatre being simply an evening’s entertainment. Jamie Fletcher and her cast manage to create drama, music, and activism, and all in the brief eighty minutes. Although still a touch rough around the edges, this only serves to add to the show’s subversiveness and charm. Dancing Bear strikes the perfect balance between being intellectually engaging and entertaining. Technically a preview of a developing project, the show will go on tour in 2017, and promises to be truly revolutionary.

Anastasia Kennedy