Review: A Strange Wild Song by Rhum and Clay

A Strange Wild Song stillRhum and Clay are a young company who have only been going a couple of years but they have already come to the attention of Arts Council England, as well as other notable organisations who are always on the lookout for exciting new talent to partner with, such as the New Diorama Theatre, the Bike Shed and the Watermill. If A Strange Wild Song is anything to go by, it’s hardly surprising that Rhum and Clay have much more established organisations queueing up to work with them, as they are a hugely talented group of actors with a real flair for storytelling.

Devised by the company, and based on a 1915 series of photos by a Belgian photographer, the premise of A Strange Wild Song is very simple. Set in a bombed-out French village during World War II, it concerns an American soldier who has deserted his unit, and who comes across three young boys – brothers – who are somehow managing to survive amongst the ruins, having lost their family and community to the war.  At first wary of the stranger, eventually the boys include him in their games and a bond is formed between them which throws into stark juxtaposition the capacity for imaginative play in all of us and the horror of which humankind is capable. The story is framed by a team of archeologists who find a camera owned by the soldier while investigating the ruins of the village, and contact his grandson. Between them, they piece together the story told in the photographs.

The young boys are played by the core members of Rhum and Clay: Christopher Harrison, Julian Spooner and Matthew Wells, who also double as the archeologists, and it is in the opening sequence that it becomes apparent that their massive talents were nurtured at the world-famous Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques LeCoq. The first 15 minutes of the show are entirely non-verbal, the boys communicating purely through their physicality, and a set of whistles and articulated explosions with accompanying hand gestures. And yet such is the skill of the actors that we see clearly the relationship between their very different characters, their respective ages, the emotional damage done to them by the war and the amazing fortitude they must have had, to have survived for so long on their own.

I could go on for ages, describing in detail the multitude of ways in which the boys express without words what they have seen and how it has shaped their childish imaginations, but it wouldn’t do justice to the sheer genius of the performers. Suffice it to say that they captured the hearts of the audience, transporting us into the world they created with the sheer force of their physical expression and sweeping us along with them on a wave of empathy and understanding. One almost feels sorry for Daniel Wilcox, who is very good in his doubling of the soldier and his grandson, but whose chance to shine is suppressed by the necessarily functional role in which he has been cast.

The entire piece is set to a haunting sound-scape, performed live (and presumably composed, as there is no composer credited in the programme) by the accomplished Laila Woozeer, who plays bassoon, keyboards, guitar and ukelele, sings, and deftly manipulates a range of effects pedals to create a spectrum of music and other-worldly sounds. It is the perfect accompaniment to the action, adding another dimension without being intrusive, despite Laila being onstage and in full view the whole time.

Funny, poignant and, most of all, entirely truthful, A Strange Wild Song is not only ‘poor theatre’ at its very best, it’s theatre at it’s very best, and if you get the opportunity to see the show, grab it with both hands! Anyone who has ever enjoyed theatre, as well as everyone who has never tried it, should add Rhum and Clay to their list of ‘must-see’s.

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