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PERLE – Soho Theatre, London.

perle“Understated cartoon” may sound like an oxymoron, but that is the subtle triumph of Dancing Brick’s 60-minute snapshot Perle, currently playing in the Soho Theatre’s studio space. Written and performed by Verity Bargate Award-winning Thomas Eccleshare and smartly directed by company co-founder Valentina Ceschi, this piece, appropriately enough, is a small theatrical gem, somehow translating 14th-century Middle English dream-vision poem Pearl into a quirky multimedia show, while maintaining its aching meditation on grief.

In place of Christian doctrine (Pearl’s emphasis on accepting the will of God becomes more generalised sentiment about living with a terrible loss), there is interesting exploration of our reliance on technology as a way to experience and process the world. Eccleshare’s sad clown protagonist, a contemporary Commedia dell’Arte Pierrot, can only communicate via VHS tapes played on his TV, with memories, thoughts, feelings and exchanges strictly ordered and controlled.

This is often played for laughs, with delightfully goofy meta commentary and fun demonstration of the protagonist’s mood or speech through different fonts and pictures, but there is also a haunting sadness about his social disconnect. While the theme is a tad underdeveloped, there’s certainly a suggested correlation between the isolation of insurmountable pain and the consequences of our tendency to choose a safe, artificially constructed world over the real one.

Perle is most effective when it mixes this melancholy and philosophy with humour and elements of improvisation. Much as I usually dread the words “audience participation”, it’s deployed effectively here, with unsuspecting members of the public bringing a raw edge to what could otherwise be saccharine flashbacks. However, the show is occasionally too on the nose – the use of a “Stages of grief” book rather insults our intelligence, and the climax, which takes an allegory from the poem and attempts a more literal reading, needs sharpening.

However, Eccleshare’s portrayal is masterful in its restraint. His interactions with Serge Seidlitz’s striking illustrations are mesmerising because of the way he underplays them; the making of a sandwich is a quiet comic tour de force with a great double punch line. Likewise, he doesn’t lapse into melodrama, but allows his all-consuming detachment to gradually read as a desperate cry for help, as when he observes that facial expressions merely mask his ever-present sorrow, or when the urgent wish “If only” tumbles from his sleep-deprived brain again and again.

The additions of lines from Pearl work well, and there’s excellent support from Harry Blake’s score. It will be fascinating to see if the company can build on this work and create a fuller piece in future – they have all the tools to create something innovative and significant.

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Reviewed 25/10/13/

By Marianka Swain

22nd Oct – 3rd Nov 2013
Soho Theatre, London, W1D.

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