Your Last Breath is the first of six projects by curious directive which will eventually lead to a total of 132 hours of science inspired theatre touring nineteen venues and festivals throughout the country. Seven scientists will be collaborating with the creative team and it’s an ambitious and original concept for a small scale regional theatre company (based in the east of England) to undertake. It has come to the Stephen Joseph in the final stages of a Spring tour mostly based in the south of England after earning a fringe first award at last year’s Edinburgh festival.
It is a clever, compact and economical piece of work lasting just over an hour. Four separate stories, linked by a common theme, are woven together across a time scale of a hundred and fifty years. Looking back at what was packed into it I am amazed that the company is able to make it work within such a short time scale but they succeed beautifully. You do need to concentrate as there is information coming at you all the time, both visually and verbally, and it certainly helps to know in advance from the programme what the four scenarios are, just to give you a way in. In 1876 a young man has left his family to map the mountains of Norway for the first time, in 1999 an extreme skier’s body has frozen after an accident but when she is warmed her heart begins to beat again, in 2011 a young woman travels to Norway to scatter her father’s ashes and in 2034 a young man explains a medical breakthrough in which a body can be suspended in animation. These stories are told simultaneously, cutting in and out of each other, so that we can feel the resonances between them. If it were not done well it would be horribly confusing but the acting, writing and direction (by Jack Lowe) are all sharp enough to make it clear if you look and listen carefully.
In some ways this show reminds me of the work of theatre director Katie Mitchell and it has some of the same strengths in that it is richly imagined, physically bold, visually satisfying and very original. It also has the same intellectual coldness that her work has, a certain lack of warmth. This shows particularly in the burgeoning love affair between Freiya and her guide which is beautifully acted by Karina Sugden and Gareth Taylor but sometimes their human story struggles a bit against the style of the production. There are some fine visual moments. I especially enjoyed the wonderful images of map making conjured out of lengths of coloured string and there is some accurate and telling movement work too, especially from Elizabeth Holmes as the skier Anna. Lighting is used well to help define times and moments and technically the whole thing is a tiny marvel of light, sound, movement and speech. There is no time or space to get anything wrong.
I am always glad to see theatre that is original and inventive, there is not enough work around that is truly theatrical, and I have no doubt that this project is going to grow and develop into something very interesting indeed as 2012 progresses. The idea of linking science and the arts is a fascinating one and there is plenty of new territory for the company to explore.
I am very grateful to Chris Monks and his team for programming this show into the Stephen Joseph’s Spring season. It is the kind of theatre which they should be showing us and I really hope that the small audience it gathered (just over twenty) at the matinee which I saw doesn’t put them off inviting them back. This says far more about the town of Scarborough than it does about this talented and innovative young company.