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Review: The Nico Project at The Playhouse

By Alice Mooney

This is a project with a difference. Prepare to be led, for the desire to steer may conflict with the direction of this performance. The first thing that strikes audiences is an immediate destruction of the fourth wall by Maxine Peake (as Nico) who addresses the opening monologue with the house lights still up. Introductions are vague, so put aside any desires for the traditional beginning-middle-end narrative as this will feel more like a memory of the avant-garde limbo your mind finds itself in just before waking up. Just go with it. This is a raw and untainted psychological journey into the perspectival being of Nico. Peake offers a thought provoking sometimes uncomfortable portrayal of a woman whose nature was constantly redefined by those around her as she grapples with her own diminishing power. Director and co-creator, Sarah Frankcom challenges a likely theme of internalisation, a ruptured identity in a loud and rapid-paced lifespan.

If you do some background reading about Nico, you’ll no doubt come across her interactions with a vast number of notable figures; Andy Warhol, Serge Gainsbourg and Bob Dylan to name a few, but do not expect these external influences to be the focus. I would argue that the lack of pre-conceived expectations keeps the mind open as Peake doesn’t so much embody a character, a person or a being, but is instead a vessel for emotion. Instead the Nico we see on stage is an entity of thought, stripped back to poetic, yet sometimes hard to follow descriptions, statements and questions. Having said this, those whom are well versed in Nico’s history could well observe this portrayal as eye-opening, tragic and powerful. There is reference to the ‘space’ between audience and performer as a question of crossover, in this instance I enjoyed Peake’s ability to fill it with tension during a long pivotal silence as well as the yielding gestures by the orchestra. That being said, this is a focused piece, it delves deeply into subconsciousness which for the most part stays true to its appropriate title being a project. Projected indeed through the influence of music provided by The Royal Northern College of Music and its all-female ensemble.

Anna Clyne’s stunning compositions provided a high impact contrast to the opening monologue. Never before have I seen an orchestra possess its own resistance and attitude which blurs the lines between actor and musician. There is no clear relationship between the young women of the RNCM orchestra and Nico, however the two combine through their equal intensity and interact to raise the emotion tenfold. They build a rising intensity both instrumentally and physically, which with the addition of loops allows further freedoms for movement onstage.

Resounding credits are due to both Clyne and sound designer Helen Atkinson for providing the most monumental sound that filled the theatre and invigorated the senses. Being relatively adverse to loud music concerts myself, this was an entirely different feeling of immersion and escapism, much like the satisfaction and thrill of a thunder storm. Paule Constables lighting perfectly mimicked the glowing experience felt by all from the final crescendo. It was peculiar, it was daring, it was loud but most of all it was powerful. Wow. Is the only word. You’re not sure what just happened but the need to make sense of it dissipated long ago.

We arrived once again back to Peake’s closing monologue. At this point, one can’t help but be disappointed by the certainty that there will be no more music, as if at the end of a roller-coaster ride. This devised piece, though so ambitiously presented would benefit from striking a greater balance between the intimacy gained from a smaller theatre married with the acoustic advantage of the Playhouse. The directional choice to have house lights up for the opening monologue only emphasised the smaller audience and drew focus from Peake. I am however very excited to hear more of Anna Clyne’s work as well as the opportunity to see the performers of RNCM.

The Nico Project, is a bold and thought-provoking hour that will leave you guessing long after you leave the theatre. It is a reflection of just how much scope a live performance can offer, so long as the surrounding space does not hinder its potential. Credits to the cast who rise to the challenge of this complex piece and its demanding portrayal.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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