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RUNNING ON EMPTY – Soho Theatre, London.

running on empty, soho theatreCreating cross-genre work can be a revelatory process, with one medium casting new light on another and disparate pieces combining to form a greater, truly novel entity. However, marshalling numerous elements into a cohesive whole requires laser focus, something notable by its absence in the commendably ambitious Running on Empty.

Probe, a company formed by Antonia Grove in 2004 to explore interdisciplinary projects, has a good track record of brave, involving work, and there is definite promise in this new show: potentially resonant themes like grief, longing and the need for forgiveness, a strong core of evocative original music, and an interesting theatrical basis for exploring slippery states like memory, imagination and dreaming.

However, the dream world is a subject rife with cliché, and unless you can marshal a wildly original, unforgettably stylish approach like master of the genre David Lynch, it’s all too easy to slip into cod philosophy, earnest symbolism and New Age therapy. Writer Brad Birch draws the short straw here, as his text is given little room to develop and thus tends towards generalised statements, frustrating in their obliqueness.

Songwriter Lee Ross and insouciant composer/performer Scott Smith fare much better, providing the evening’s most successful material. Both the ever-present soundscape and individual numbers are haunting and quietly absorbing, finding an abstract yet emotional satisfying interpretation of the themes and even hinting at a much-needed narrative arc.

Choreographer Charlie Morrissey’s contemporary work has similar moments of effective connection, particularly in the fluid lyrical sections, studied counterbalancing and burst of violent action, with a maelstrom of breathless, frenzied partnering strikingly illustrating a desperate fight for survival. However, the dance also falls victim to bland statement on occasion, such as an overlong boating section or the decision to turn a poetic description of drowning into a painfully literal animal impression.

Of course, featuring three disciplines also requires performers with a broad skillset, and Grove is a strong advertisement for her company’s aims. Hers is a magnetic performance of absolute commitment, with tangible purpose and effortless, organic movement in the dance sections, some specificity in the speech and raw feeling, if wandering pitch, in the singing. Her partner Greig Cooke has nice clarity in his movement and gentle charisma, but only a fraction of her power, which severely undercuts their dynamic. Oddly, Grove seems to have better chemistry with narrator Smith.

At just over an hour, Running on Empty falls between two stools, neither a tight snapshot nor a fully formed piece; director Jo McInnes brings a crisp energy, but can’t disguise some of the disjointedness. However, it’s heartening to see the Soho Theatre supporting such an experimental, creatively engaging project, and this one might reward both their and an audience’s investment after further development.

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Reviewed 06/02/14

By Marianka Swain

4th – 16th Feb 2014
Soho Theatre, London, W1.

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