James Son of James
Daily Telegraph, 7 February 2008
For the past five years, this truly fabulous dance theatre company has been building a Midlands Trilogy — a series of works set against the backdrop of communities in the heart of present day Ireland.The biblically-tinged conclusion, James Son of James — which launches the Barbican’s Bite season — is undoubtedly the most sophisticated piece of storytelling Fabulous Beast has yet embarked upon.
Mixing speech, song and powerfully effective snatches of dance, it follows the progress of James (Emmanuel Obeya), who arrives late for his father’s funeral — and has a profound effect on the small-town community in which he finds himself.
From the second he sits down to a carefully grouped Last Supper of welcome, the trajectory of the story is plain. This quietly mannered outsider will transform people’s lives: he will save an unhappy girl from drowning, he will heal her sorrowing father, he will help the barren policeman’s wife to conceive. In the end, however, this sort of messiah will be rejected and undone by prejudice, self-interest and jealousy.
But what is impressive about Michael Keegan-Dolan’s production, choreographed by the whole company, is the bright clarity with which the tale unfolds. On Merle Hensel’s simple set — a half-timbered, unfinished house presumably representing Ireland’s growth — and, with Philip Feeney’s jaunty songs providing an ironic counterpoint, a series of deft duets reveal character and emotion with economic originality.
As James saves Simone (wonderful Rachel Poirier) from a ditch (represented by real water under stage trapdoors) the drenched girl struggles and swims in his arms; when a farmer recruits a foreign worker who eventually becomes his wife, he measures her with his body, lifting her over his head to weigh her; the way the policeman and his wife grapple with their unfertility is shown by her desperate lunges towards his crotch; when James’ yoga classes provide sexual and emotional liberation to the townswomen, they conceive in a giddily acrobatic series of movements.
The height of the town’s happiness is celebrated in a wedding scene full of whirling, breathless couples.
Often funny and always absorbing up to this point, the piece’s subsequent tilt into tragedy and the heavily allegorical conclusion feel less convincing. It may make a point about the struggles of modern Ireland, but it turns its characters into ciphers, their motivation for malice generic rather than specific.
The superb cast still delineate every second with a kind of unassuming lucidity that belies the great skill on display, but the impact of their actions slightly falls away.
Perhaps that is partly because James Son of James feels less visceral, less instinctive than its two predecessors. But, taken as a whole, the Midlands Trilogy looks like a substantial achievement, melding various aspects of dance, theatre and music in an entirely convincing and satisfying way.
Sarah Crompton, The Daily Telegraph