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A Must-See London Show: FellSwoop Theatre's Ablutions
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A Must-See London Show: FellSwoop Theatre's Ablutions

Picture of Kate Rigg
Updated: 9 February 2017
FellSwoop Theatre’s current show, Ablutions, is playing at London’s Soho Theatre until February 22nd and then touring to venues across the country. But why should you follow what this innovative young company are creating?

FellSwoop Theatre was established in 2010 by a group of Warwick University students reaching the end of their studies. Now based in Bristol, their core creative team comprises of two performers, a director, and a musical director. FellSwoop have made a name for themselves through their merging of live music with dramatic storytelling, their collaborative creative process, and their innovative use of devising and text adaptation.

Ablutions is an example of all of the above. Based on the novel by the Mann Booker nominated Patrick deWitt, it uses live music and performance to tell the story of a barman in LA whose disillusionment rises with his alcoholism, and whose desire for both redemption and revenge takes him on a journey across America. The text was adapted by the company through a dynamic process. They improvised scenes inspired by the text first, and a formalised script was introduced far later in the rehearsal period. Watching the show, the effect of this technique is evident in the ownership the actors have over the parade of characters they create.

There are four performers in Ablutions: one actor only (the barman, played by Eion Slattery), two actor/musicians, and one musician only (FellSwoop’s music director Ben Osborn). The two actor/musicians take on the challenge of playing all the background characters to Slattery’s barman. Fiona Mikel, a co-artistic director of FellSwoop, performs every female characters that an LA barman can encounter in the course of his work. She and Harry Humberstone manage to draw a vast range of personalities from within themselves, and during performance shift with liquidity between the varying accents, pitches, and physicality needed to bring scores of characters to life.

This creativity on stage is surely testament to the inventive work done in the rehearsal period. However, the director Bertrand Lesca skilfully merges this creative approach to deWitt’s material with maintaining the text’s authenticity. When the barman describes what he is doing, he speaks to the audience in the second person (‘You go out…’, etc). It is as though they, and not he, are the ones trapped in his life. This is a stylistic feature of deWitt’s novel, retained and translated by FellSwoop into a performance device.

A good adaptation is one where the audience, who may have entered doubtful as to whether this source material could be staged, leave utterly convinced in its validity as a piece of theatre. A great adaptation is one that compliments its source, but has the strength to stand completely independent of it. Viewed apart from its source text, FellSwoop’s Ablutions seems a deceptively simple piece of theatre. It is a performance by a cast of four in a black box space. However, this appearance of effortless simplicity, of minimal theatre done well, relies on the skill and adaptability of the company.

As musicians, FellSwoop’s performers created live for the audience everything from the hum of air conditioning in a service station to the country/blues soundtrack of an American road trip. As actors, they evoked crowds for our view. As theatre devisers, they gave deWitt’s text a life that the author could not have envisaged.

This happens to be what FellSwoop Theatre Company is known for. Their first piece outside of university was Belleville Rendez-Vous, a theatrical adaptation of Sylvian Chomet’s Oscar nominated, animated comedy Les Triplettes de Belleville. Chomet was impressed with their take on his material, and gave this fledgling company his full support to take their show as far as possible. Viewed together, Belleville Rendez-Vous and Ablutions are proof of FellSwoop’s diversity.

Here are two contrasting source texts, staged completely differently. WhereAblutions has only a handful of performers, Belleville Rendez-Vous brought together a cast of seventeen. When staging DeWitt’s text, the company opted for a very minimal set and a reliance on the audience’s imagination. In Belleville Rendez-Vous, however, FellSwoop drew on elaborate costuming, prosthetics, live jazz music, puppetry, musical instruments made from bicycles, and detailed set pieces to evoke the atmosphere of the original animation.

Clearly, this is not a company that confines itself to one signature visual style. One continuity, however, across FellSwoop’s productions is their use of music to tell a story, rather than embellish it or distract the audience in the interval. Another is the company’s creativity and willingness to shift like changelings between genres, performance styles, and venues.

With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how FellSwoop adapt themselves to their next project, currently titled Ghost Opera. Ghosts have re-occurred as a theme throughout FellSwoop’s work. Their first collaboration at university was a production of Marina Carr’s play By the Bog of Cats, in which musicians represented the voices of the dead. In Ablutions, the barman sees a ghost women late one night amongst the bottles. Their next project therefore facilitates an interrogation of this interest. The company also seek to develop the innovative use of music from their previous shows into a new interpretation of ‘opera’. Ghost Opera is set to be an experiment in the contemporary relationship between music and intense emotion. The project is in development with The Lowry in Salford, Manchester, and will premier in October 2015.

Until then, audiences can catch the remaining performances of Ablutions as it tours through the UK this spring. In the summer of 2015, FellSwoop will be reviving one of their previous shows, Current Location,to tour once more. Written originally as an allegorical response to the disaster of Fukushima, FellSwoop adapted contemporary Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada’s text into a performance in which six women explore how rumour and fear of inevitable change disrupts families, friends and communities. The company have been working with Okada since 2012, and previously devised a site specific response to Okada’s Five Days in March. There are therefore plenty of opportunities to keep an eye on this developing company.