Sunday, October 2

Sad-Vents – White Bear Theatre

Graphic. Gut-wrenching. Bold. Brave. Vulnerable. Vivacious. Lively. A tad too long.

Sad-Vents is an avant garde show combining more traditional storytelling with pop technology, directed by Annie McKenzie. As writer-performer Eleanor Hill shares her experiences with trauma and mental illness, her real and virtual worlds collide, opening up the invitation to the audience to also engage virtually through the show’s Instagram page, @sadventsplay. Confined to a cosy set, designed by Constance Villemot, consisting of a bed, a bit of carpet and belongings strewn about, the show quickly draws the audience into not just the bedroom but also the life (and mind) of Eleanor. The technological integration led by Matt Powell is a fun experiment and adds a layer to the show.

The rawness of the performance brilliantly reflects the reality of those living with mental illnesses. The themes and content of the show are dark, intense and real; they are made even more vivid through song, dance and Eleanor’s rambunctious performance combined with visceral props, costumes (or the lack thereof) and online interactions. A lot is thrown at the audience and with the dual level of interaction – live and virtual – it often gets overwhelming (which seems to be intentional) and can get the audience to disengage temporarily.

Producer David Shopland has done a brilliant job with the marketing – right from the blurb of the show that promises to be funny (though some may disagree) to the candid and unabashed programme given just before the show. Every material the audience interacts with, from the time they buy the tickets to just before the show begins, gives a strong flavour of what is to come (including the audacious trigger warnings at the start of the show).

A big debate in theatre currently is about the term ‘immersive’ – what it means and whether the tools used in such performances are actually engaging for audiences. This show tests those boundaries, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. A powerful moment of ‘immersivity’ does come towards the end, however. Right after she accuses her ‘Instagram viewers’ of being passive voyeurs and not reaching out to her to offer support, Eleanor flips the camera around and captures, on video, one audience member at a time. There is something chilling about suddenly being put on the spot, which is amplified by a huge relay of that video on the screen for all audience members to view. It’s a moment of very effective awkwardness and discomfort, as the audience sits cold and still while being called out on witnessing two hours of deeply personal stories of trauma and illness, and not taking any action.

While that end bodes well and gets the audience to question how they engage with content online, the pre-interval part seems too far stretched out. The show has all the right ingredients but would be more effective in a more concise form. Eleanor is a captivating performer but sometimes gets drowned out by the many other things that were going on in the very tiny space. Some dramaturgical editing can make the show slicker and land at all the intended moments. But nothing can take away from the courage and vulnerability that the show is built with and offers to the audience!

Reviewer: Aditi Dalal

Reviewed: 24th June 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★