On Wednesday 18th May, I went to see ‘Dumbstruck’at The Brewery Theatre in Bristol, the award winning latest show from Bristol based company ‘Fine Chisel’.
As I took my seat for the performance, it was clear the rest of the audience also didn’t quite know what to make of the musicians who slowly filed onto the stage and began tuning their instruments, then making odd, otherworldly noises with them. Was this still tuning? Had the performance begun? We all fell silent just in case. With the musicians using their instruments to fine effect to evoke images of the sea, we are introduced to Ted, the central character of our story. From his lonely research outpost somewhere near Alaska, he discovers the call of the loneliest whale in the world, a whale he calls 52, because of the unusual pitch of its call. 52 hertz to be precise. They say every day is a school day. Well, today was for me, as I learnt that most other whales usually vocalise at between 15 – 20 hz. The whale in our story is based on a real whale that mystified researchers. This creature was discovered by a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1989. They had been unable to discover its species, so it really has been named ‘the loneliest whale in the world’. Go on, Google it!
The show flits comfortably back and forth between the present in the research outpost and the past, where Ted is a lecturer. He is persuaded by Fiona, a student of his, to help set up a pirate radio station. As the story unfolds, we see this is a decision he ends up regretting. The action is also interspersed with a glimpse into Ted’s childhood and his close relationship with his uncle Mal, a vicar who is in the middle of a crisis of faith.
‘Fine Chisel’ make probably the best use of the small stage of The Brewery Theatre I have seen a theatre company make. The show had the potential to appear messy and chaotic as there was so much going on, but they managed to keep things snappy, precise and engaging. They made particularly interesting use of chalk and props, including some wonderful puppetry and audience participation with a ukulele. No, really! Music and theatrical performance were blended seamlessly. It was not a show with songs, it was a show where the music was an integral part of the plot, conveyi
ng messages, humour, the melancholy of Ted in his isolation, the loneliness of the whale, and the joy and freedom of Fiona as she is finally able to play her music and find her voice. For me, the stand out musician was the Irish, red-headed
, female sax player, who REALLY made me regret I gave up playing music after a lame dalliance with the recorder.
The show is a poignant reflection on the inability to communicate. We learn how whales are able to communicate over great distances, yet the humans in our story struggle to communicate, to raise their voices, to make meanings clear or to end their isolation. I left the theatre feeling reflective, and the feelings it evoked, particularly how it immersed me in the sounds of the sea, will stay with me for a while.
‘Dumbstruck’ is on at The Brewery theatre in Bristol until Saturday 21st of June, and you really should catch it if you can.
Reviewed by Karen Blake