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HIGHLY ORIGINAL AND TECHNICALLY STRONG

Print Version

INTO THE UNCANNY VALLEY
by Jean Betts with Charlie Bleakley, based on an idea by Charlie Bleakley and Nick Wyatt, with thanks for refinements to the original cast
Director: Charlie Bleakley
Produced by Lumina Productions
as part of STAB 2012 (with thanks to Creative NZ)

at BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
From 3 Nov 2012 to 17 Nov 2012

Reviewed by Helen Sims, 5 Nov 2012


The second STAB production at Bats of 2012, Into the Uncanny Valley, promises to take its audience on a “theatrical adventure ... into the enchanting truth hidden within every particle of existence”. After a visually blinding but delightful opening, during which the audience is showered with small ‘particles' (tiny bubbles), we follow a Victorian child called Sophie as she applies her imaginative powers to try and understand quantum physics.

Sophie (played by Jennifer Martin) travels through time and space, accompanied by her mischievous unnamed cat (played mainly by Paul Waggott). Made curious as to how light ‘works' by the readings of her tutor (Paul Waggott) and a pair of lively mice, Sophie shrugs off the constraints of classical physics as espoused by her Victorian father (Richard Faulkner) and his friend (Bryony Skillington). Her mother (Anya Tate-Manning) hovers disinterestedly on the side-lines, more interested in getting a perfect family photo than in whether light travels in waves or particles.

The intent of the production is clear: the aim is to try and dramatise quantum physics for the stage.  Is the experiment successful?  Yes and no.

The production's strength is the absolutely jaw dropping visual and sound design, including set, lighting, A-V projections, sound and music.  At regular intervals it prompts a sense of “how on earth did they do that?” wonder and serves to create an atmosphere of uncanny other-worldliness.  Description wouldn't do justice to the various spectacles that are created; the production is worth seeing for the boundary pushing design alone.

Full credit must go to director Charlie Bleakley, designer Joe Bleakley, producer Howard Taylor and the talented team they have assembled.  

Where the production is less successful is in exploring quantum physics through a theatrical narrative.  Being someone who has almost no knowledge about either classical or quantum physics, I needed a clear narrative to follow.  Arranging the narrative around a child is a good choice, as it allows a questioning and imaginative innocence to be the predominant tone.  However, characters are not developed, scenes are really illustrations of scientific debates, and there is very little story or plot progression. 

Surrealism is the predominant style of the production, with its trademark refusal to offer explanations.  Hence we lurch from a rule-bound family in Victorian England, to gravity-defying German philosophers, to anxious American scientists, with dream-like sequences featuring dancers in between. The dialogue in the multi-character scenes is farcical and does very little to develop themes in a clear way.  

There are some lovely moments (particularly when Sophie's mice ‘speak' to her from the billiard room of her doll house), but overall I find the narrative confusing.

Although I enjoy the novelty of the experience in general, the ‘gaps' and lack of clarity in the narrative are what make this, for me, an unsatisfying theatrical experience. Despite the technical wizardry of the show, I'm not drawn in enough to establish a connection which keeps me interested throughout. If the show is to be further developed it could benefit from a more coherent script.

Uncanny Valley is a highly original and technically strong production. Unfortunately technical excellence can't quite make up for a lack of drama and a coherent narrative. 
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See also reviews by:
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Med (The Dominion Post);