By Rosie Niven
Theatre has slowly started to trickle back into our lives, but for smaller companies, it’s been a struggle to come back with gusto. Bravely leading the charge with their pop-up theatre in Redfern, Upper Crass Theatre Company is coaxing us out of our houses with not one, but two exciting works. This week, they presented This Modern Coil, an encore of the popular 2017 Sydney Fringe Festival production which takes us on an absurd spiral into reality and the fleeting nature of existence.
Writer (and Director) James Hartley’s one-act play is a 75 minute journey into No Man’s Land, where two soldiers are stranded in the middle of a minefield, one with his foot squarely on a loaded mine. What follows is a clever dialogue about alternate realities, death, love, fear and pain, all mixed in with some dark humour about choosing to end your life. Seeming to take inspiration from works like Waiting for Godot, as the soldiers wait for help (which, spoiler alert, never comes), their conversations become more and more existential and the plot becomes less and less linear.
At first, some of these concepts can be challenging to understand - after the death of Booker (Shayan Askari), we are thrust back in time to moments before he stepped off the landmine, to see his alternate fates play out one after the other. This can be challenging with the minimal tech that comes with a pop-up theatre, but after the second shift back in time the narrative became clear. As the actors become more comfortable with these shifts and they begin to physically embody the reverse of time, it becomes exciting to see what each soldier’s fate will next be.
Actors Shayan Askari and Edward Frame (Zachary) have great chemistry as a pair, with a great understanding of each other as performers. This is seen in the way the dialogue flows freely, and their love for each other as brothers in arms is enjoyable to watch. They carry this two-hander well between them, and we feel as if we are sucked right into their little world, just the two of them, in this vast, unforgiving minefield.
In a pop-up theatre space, the set is usually the first thing to be compromised, but designer Rose Montgomery took this in her stride, bringing us an intimate set littered with pebbles and dried brush. This not only brought us quickly into Booker and Zachary’s world but filled the space with fantastically hollow and uneasy sounds as the soldiers crunched through the ground and tested their luck with the mines.
Pitched as a dark comedy, This Modern Coil presents us with punchline after punchline, but whether the jokes weren’t landing or the audience aren’t yet used to being back at live theatre, the actors weren’t met with the vocal crowd a lot of these jokes needed. What felt most lacking though, was the investment of emotion that should come with watching another soldier die, or talking about being snubbed by the girl you love, or making the decision to step off a landmine when you’ve exhausted all other options. In these moments, the performances felt entirely restrained, and it was difficult to invest yourself without this much-needed emotional depth.
It was off to a slow start, but This Modern Coil presents some really interesting concepts that stay with you long after you leave the theatre. Is this the only reality? Is there another reality where I didn’t see this show at all? Does time even exist? What definitely exists is the theatre industry’s return from hiatus, and this show was a great way to get us back into the theatre. I’m excited to see what else Upper Crass Theatre has in store for us when they return to the stage next week with a whole new story.