October 16, 2019

DUMBSTRUCK at the Battersea Arts Centre by FINE CHISEL

If somehow there was a blue whale in this room…

Unless you are a marine biologist or a paid-up member of Save the Whales you are going to learn a lot about cetaceans at DUMBSTRUCK by FINECHISEL, on now at the Battersea Arts Centre. You’ll also pick up details about the mechanics of radio transmission and how to calculate the speed of sound through water. You’ll leave having experienced a foot-stompy musical evening, with ponderations on the difficulties of communication.

Robin McLoughlin takes the lead as Ted Tomkins, a marine scientist living not just in Alaska, which would be remote enough, but on an island off Alaska. McLoughlin well creates the character’s unease and discomfort with human interaction which has led him to such an outpost. Ted tells us that whales can communicate over distances as large as five miles, but he has clearly struggled with communication over five metres.

His occupations are restricted to marble solitaire and his work with whales. It is 1989 but his laboratory is full of ancient equipment and blackboards – even at the start he is a relic, escaping from a world he doesn’t understand. He listens through headphones to the noises of the whales – noises created by the rest of the cast who sit with guitar, sax, bass, cajon and ukeles at the side of the stage.

The real star of DUMBSTRUCK is never actually seen. Ted has heard the song of a whale that is much deeper than normal. With much lecturing of the audience about hertz and formulae we learn that this whale has a pitch of 52hz. This is much higher than that of a blue whale, whose pitch is around 15-20hz. But you knew that didn’t you?

On paper this sounds as though it needs enlivening, and it is by regular interactions from the band. They accompany the action, add effects, play songs and also leave their instruments behind and become part of the story. We jump back from Ted’s current preoccupations and see some of his early development. Scenes show his strangled romantic endeavours with the student Fiona, whom he wants to accompany him to a new job in Belgium. We also watch his earlier, youthful interaction with his vicar uncle. Here Tom Spence’s use of instruments, both musical and scientific to represent the growing Ted is inventive.

That Fiona also runs a pirate radio station adds to the plethora of references to communication in the production. Ted’s pursuit of the whale becomes unsettling as he starts reading to it over a hydrophone. (That’s an underwater microphone – but you knew that didn’t you?) Fiona’s radio station becomes a proto-Wikileaks, releasing details that the government doesn’t want communicated. She is more at home in physical expression, dancing as she writes her equations and electrical designs. Ted’s uncle fears he no longer hears from God. One of his parishioners believes he does. As the title suggests, everyone is struggling with speech. They talk but get no response, just like a radio station that sends words out into the ether and cannot be sure that anyone is listening.

Sometimes the production feels too much of a lecture. And the whale-based background, though based on a true story does not hold the interest for the hour and half duration. The pirate radio segments complicate things, though their inclusion allows for the playful reprise of Sixties music. The trailer above focuses on the musical element and it is in the music  where the performance blossoms.

All the musicians radiate enthusiasm, especially Holly Beasley-Garrigan, whose quizzical demeanour and physicality complement her electro-acoustic bassline which accompany most of the songs. Carolyn Goodwin’s sax adds much of the whaley sound effects but also comes into its own in the Vox radio segments, as does George Williams’ voice – even if he is singing about salmon or trout.

FINE CHISEL are a band as well as a theatre company. The script ranges widely over too many topics and ideas and doesn’t gel into a theatrically consistent whole. The music is much more successful. Go for the band and enjoy their infectious warmth.

More details and tickets

DUMBSTRUCK are gigging in the downstairs bar on Fridays after the show

2 – 19 July (Wed-Sat) 8pm

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