Falling by Theatre Alibi; A Brave Look Into The Abyss

Falling by Theatre Alibi; A Brave Look Into The Abyss

Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson

Photos by Ben Borley, provided by Theatre Alibi

I arrived at Exeter Phoenix last week for the third and final performance of Falling by Theatre Alibi before the company takes the production on its UK tour.

Chatting with Debbie Bucella, Theatre Alibi’s marketing manager, before the production, it sounded like Falling had experienced a positive run on its Exeter leg. As a company that was born in the city, Theatre Alibi often enjoys a good reception and Debbie is hopeful that this will continue as they take Falling across the country. There was certainly a buzz in the Phoenix with many college and University students queueing at the entrance to the studio.

This was my first experience of Theatre Alibi, although I have heard the company’s name mentioned many times, and I was eagerly anticipating watching Falling after hearing about the success of its 2016 tour.

Writer Daniel Jamieson was inspired by “vivid memories of childhood holidays in Cornwall” where he would come across old mineshafts and “glimpse the hole disappearing into the depths of the Earth”. He explains:

“To my mind, nothing could be more horrific than falling down a hole like that.”

This forms the premise of Falling, a performance with just two actors; Anne Wheatley as Alice and Jordan Whyte as her mother Claire. A nod to Lewis Carroll’s iconic character, Falling’s Alice disappears down a hole at the beginning of the story. This Alice is notably different to Carroll’s creation; a 17-year-old sixth form student from Cornwall, hoping to go to University to study architecture. The hole too could not be more different; instead of a rabbit hole, Alice falls into a sinkhole that opens up in her back garden, a fictional response to the real sinkholes that became prevalent in Britain after heavy storms in 2014.

Alice and Claire begin the performance by speaking directly to the audience, describing each other “before the accident”. We are under the impression that we are about to witness markedly different ‘before’ and ‘after’ Alices and Claires.

After a brief insight into the normalcy of Alice and Claire’s life, we witness “the accident”, cleverly orchestrated through the use of the circular metal prop that acts as the hole, combined with frenetic lighting and a building crescendo of guitar, played onstage by Thomas Fripp.

Thomas Fripp plays electric guitar on stage in Falling.
Guitarist Thomas Fripp playing on-stage during Falling.

The falling event itself lasts a surprisingly brief amount of time, with the story focusing on the after; the impact the accident has on Alice and Claire’s lives. Writer Daniel explains:

“when we have a brush with disaster, a glimse into the abyss… Might a fear of falling then reach such a pitch that it becomes as bad as falling itself?”

This concept is explored throughout the production; a lasting blackness that exists in both Alice and Claire following the accident. At first it seems as if Claire is flourishing; she stops putting things off and gets back into her art studio, creating more art than ever.

Alice’s decline is clear to the audience, gradual but visible, as is its invisibility to her mother Claire. As the story unfolds, the darkness begins to visually consume Alice and as Claire reaches an epitome in her art work, we realise that the darkness has been with her all along too.

Girl in striped dressing gown clings to circular frame
The stage representation of Alice falling down the sinkhole.

Art and imagery are used throughout the performance to mirror the characters’ emotions and represent the dichotomy between the before and after. We are shown work from the artist Francisco Goya, who experienced his own before and after.

Claire shows us “the innocent Goya” as his art is projected onto the screen behind the hole, forcing us to look through to see his brightly coloured classical works. Next comes the after. After Goya loses his hearing, his work loses its bright colours and classical themes, replaced instead with darkness and visions of evil.

This before and after speaks to Alice and Claire’s relationship but acts too as a metaphor for Alice’s state of mind. Before the accident, Alice was bright and optimistic with dreams of going to University. After, Alice is haunted by the darkness of her trauma, unable to engage in her ‘before life’ of driving lessons, choir and A-levels. Although Alice was rescued from the hole, it becomes clear that she is still falling and although she begins to close off from everyone around her, Wheatley succeeds in sharing her vulnerability and emotions with the audience.

Anna Wheatley acts drunk holding a vodka bottle
The before and after Alices.

Director Nikki Sved has maximised the potential of this cast of two; the small cast and equally small space created by set designer Trina Bramman promote a sense of intimacy. Whyte and Wheatley are able to demonstrate the close bond of mother and daughter, made closer still by the absence of Alice’s father, and extend this to the audience. This family bond could be perceived as hyperbolic, but I would argue that this is intentional in highlighting the impact of the accident on their mother-daughter bond.

Claire’s fear, verbalised at the beginning of the performance, of losing Alice as she comes of age and moves on with the promises of a University future is realised in a completely different way. The aftermath of the trauma creates a painful chasm that separates the two, an emotional sink hole represented by the constant presence of the freestanding circle on stage.

Anna Wheatley stands inside the free standing circle on stage at Falling by Theatre Alibi
Alice stands within the free-standing circle that represents the sinkhole; a permanent fixture on stage throughout the performance.

Falling by Theatre Alibi has been deemed suitable for audiences of 14 years and above as it explores the darkness of trauma and mental health, tugging at the audience’s emotions throughout. This therefore does not make for ‘easy watching’; you will be put through your emotional paces, though there are necessary and unexpected moments of humour delivered by both actresses.

Jordany Whyte and Anna Wheatley with their arms around each other, looking affectionate
Claire and Alice share a tender moment, demonstrating the mother-daughter bond they share.

The hole remains onstage throughout the performance, a visual reminder of the trauma that the pair, and that we as the audience, have suffered. We understand how much the hole has swallowed, exactly as Jamieson intended, as he describes his initial inspiration of the forgotten mine shaft transforming into a sinkhole, “pitching everything above down into the hole – cars, roads, houses, lives.”

To watch the trailer and find out more about Falling by Theatre Alibi’s UK tour, click here.

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