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Freefall (Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival)

It has been a while since I’ve worn my ‘theatre reviewer’ hat, but I’m blowing the cobwebs off on this one. My girlfriend is a huge fan of the Corn Exchange theatre group and we decided to give their new work, playing as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, a go. I’ve had very mixed luck when it comes to seeing performances in the project theatre, and while I was quite impressed with the technical aspects of the play – I couldn’t help feeling that something was missing.

Not quite a stroke of genius...

Not quite a stroke of genius...

Freefall has a delightfully exciting concept – it takes place inside a man’s head as he has a stroke, with the memories of his life clashing and shaking and scrambling, like the pieces of jigsaw puzzle collapsing out of order. We experience his childhood with his step parents, his first encounter with his wife-to-be, their intimacy issues, a dry-rot inspector and a disasterous dinner party featuring his stepbrother and his stepbrother’s new misses. As you can imagine – see as this is theatre – the dinner part doesn’t go exactly to plan. Why to theatrical characters even have them these days?

Technically, the performance is magnificent. It intigrates video – both live and pre-recorded, to create a dazzling and disorientated effect. Trapped inside his own head, the lead character finds himself watching the doctors and nurses on the screen to figure out what is really going on outside. All the while he ‘normal’ life is deconstructed as he questions what should have, could have and what might have been.

It’s not a new concept, but it’s executed with enough charm and creativity here to excuse the cliché. The set design is fantastically effective, with the clinic inside of his own mind able to distort and become any number of places. There are hints of his mind meshing and merging and distorting events (for example at one point he suggests he would rather spend time with the priest than the dry rot salesman, so the actor simply changes costume; or when the priest from another scene is offered crisps during the dinner party). There’s a lot of potential here for the play to be something more than It’s A Perfectly Adequate Life, but it doesn’t take them – and maybe that’s the biggest problem.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s enjoyable. There’s a hint of humour amid the dysfunction and the tragedy. I really liked the ending (without spoiling anything). But it just feels as though – for all the technical magnificence of the set design, the light and the audio-visual element – something is missing. Or rather, that there should be more. The cast are great, and they manage to bring the material to life with an energy and vibrancy which means the audience is never disengaged or bored, but at the end we’re left asking the same question as the protagonist: is that all?

Sure, there are some nice undercurrents and metaphors (the suggestion that the protagonist has seen his potential sapped away as if by dry rot, loosing the chance to ‘get outta here’ by instead making a desperate bid to be normal or average), but the play doesn’t really offer much in the way of revelation or insight. It doesn’t even seem to give the protagonist any particular insight (other than the rather obvious “I don’t want to die” epiphany), despite that seeming to be the point.

In the interest of full disclosure, we paid for our tickets. Maybe we would have been much happier with the show had it not cost so much for two tickets. I can see where the costs are – there’s a whole host of technical wizardry on display – but surely there must have been someway to reduce costs on tickets? €33 feels like a lot to pay for under two hours of entertainment. I’m not sure if that factors into my opinion of the play – I think I still would have been slightly disappointed – but it possibly exaggerates it.

It’s not a bad night’s entertainment. It’s entertaining, it’s solidly performed and it features any number of neat audio-visual treats. It is – despite what its premise would have you believe – relatively light. Yes, there are some shadier elements (mostly at the climax of the dinner party), but the play keeps a smile on its face for most of its runtime. If you can get a concession, it is definitely worth at least some consideration.

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