Writer, poet, musician extraordinaire Jack Dean brought the full force of his Unlimited-backed 'steampunk fairytale' Grandad and the Machine to bear on the unassuming space of Camden People's Theatre from 13-15th October. Joe Turnbull went along for the ride.
It's England in 2015 but not quite as we know it. The shadowy Corporation (of London) rules with an iron fist, swathes of public land have been usurped by profiteers and adverts abound, selling things like opium custard. On second thoughts, barring the opium that doesn't sound so particularly alien.
But there are a few crucial differences to the parallel universe in which Grandad and the Machine is set. Technology is trapped in the steam age for starters. Giant robotic leviathans struck the definitive blow in the Great War, one of which – having lain dormant in the sea for a century – is marching ceaselessly towards London.
Amidst the panic, single-dad Michael and his eight-year-old prodigy of a daughter Imogen set off on a quest to see Grandad – apparently, he'll know what to do. What follows is a sprawling adventure, full of twists and turns.
It's pretty much a one man show, barring the musical accompaniment of another solo performer. Dean voices and acts out all of the characters – Imogen is played by a puppet – as well as all the narration.
This makes the performance at times frantic and strained, but it's always pulled together by Dean's lilting lyrical style, which is faintly reminiscent of the rambling rhythms of the beat poets. This is theatre inflected with spoken word and sprinkled with hip-hop sensibilities and references, whilst avoiding the temptation of resorting to rhyme (Dean is also a rapper, so this was surely a challenge).
His turn of phrase rolls off the tongue and lulls you like a lullaby and is undoubtedly the highlight of the show. Grandad and the Machine is light on acting but heavy on words. Which is no bad thing. This feels like a revival of the lost art of storytelling, like a bedtime story for grownups and older children (14+ is about right given some of the language).
It also means blind and visually impaired audiences will miss little – the show is basically audio described through the narration. This came naturally, but Dean also tightened this up to improve access. For those with hearing impairments, written copies of the play's text were available.
The staging was also clever, with a sort of rough-and-ready charm. A projected porthole was used to set the various scenes and at one point a bicycle wheel with fairylights represents the London Eye. This is an epic that you can fit in a shabby suitcase.
Having a child as the main protagonist is a useful device. Despite Imogen's precocious intelligence, it's her seeming naivety that reveals the absurdity of the world she inhabits. Much like our own England, Imogen's is one of grotesque disparities, where the common good is subjugated for corporate profits, sexism is rampant and pollution is engulfing the country.
In a lovely moment Imogen looks down on England from a zeppelin and remarks, with the insight seemingly reserved for children and marginalised geniuses: "It's funny, from here you can't see who owns anything". In her childlike innocence, she can't see the reason for all the inequalities. She's constantly questioning things in a way only a child can.
She wishes her father could extend the familial love he shows her to the wider community. It's a reminder that we should all embrace the inquisitive nature of youth a little more, not just accept the vision of the world handed down to us from on high. Grandad and the Machine viciously lances the vagaries of consumer capitalism brilliantly, if a little unsubtly. Subtlety is often overrated anyway. Hope is the take-home message here.
The action is broken up by dystopian adverts, that quintessentially British obsession – the shipping forecast – with the occasional song thrown in for good measure. A David Bowie (sound-alike) rendition of the National Anthem and a 50s version of Wu Tang Clan's Cream provide some comic relief, though elsewhere the humour is occasionally forced. The music was perhaps one area where it showed how overstretched this two-man team was; using looping techniques can be unforgiving when you're still trying to catch your breath.
These are minor gripes in what was undoubtedly a virtuoso performance of a very accomplished piece of storytelling and beautiful poetry. It just goes to show the challenges of staging small theatre, that as fantastic as this piece was it was under-attended, which is a shame, as it deserves to be seen all over. The show goes on tour next year and once this production gathers steam (excuse the pun) it will surely be as unstoppable as a 100-foot robot.
Grandad and the Machine is available to tour. For small to medium venues; suitable for over 14’s.
Watch the interview with Dean talking about the project below: