Review - C-o-n-t-a-c-t at various locations
No, this isn’t Contact, the “dance play” that won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical and was later seen on the West End. Instead, C-o-n-t-a-c-t — the letters are aptly distanced to suit the times — marks the English-language premiere of an alfresco theatre piece that premiered in Paris during lockdown and is now playing simultaneously at three separate London locations: Greenwich, Clapham, and the City financial district. I caught it at that last-named locale — an area whose footfall has been hugely affected by Covid-19 — on an overcast London evening, lights twinkling along the River Thames. As in France, Samuel Sené is the director and shares responsibility for the concept with Gabrielle Jourdain.
Even before arrival, it was clear that this would be no ordinary piece of theatre. Patrons are asked to download the show’s app and arrive with headphones so as to be able to hear the audio portion of an immersive 50-minute show that is performed three times a day at each location, to socially distanced audiences of 15 at a time. The soundscape by Cyril Barbessol accompanies the movements of two flesh-and-blood actors whom we follow along the Thames Path opposite that modern-day London landmark that is the Shard. “Let’s walk for a little,” we’re encouraged, and so we do, the capital glistening even as the story that unfolds gives itself over to grief.
What we hear are shards of a narrative defined by yearning and sorrow, acted down our earpieces with emotive (if pre-recorded) fury by Richard Heap and Aoife Kennan. What we see is a clearly stricken young woman, Sarah (Laura White), dressed in a denim jacket and leggings who is visited by a leather-jacketed “atheist angel.” This spectral presence made flesh arrives just in time to be the wingless guardian to a daughter very palpably mourning the death of her father.
“Silence, white silence,” is Sarah’s response to the news of the passing of her dad, a difficult-sounding man with whom Sarah clearly wants to make peace, even from beyond the grave. That he lost his sight while working as an osteopath prompts the mordantly funny observation that “a blind osteopath is like a blind piano tuner,” and it’s down to Sarah to see her way towards something resembling love.
Quentin Bruno’s English-language adaptation of Eric Chantelauze’s French original doesn’t hold much truck with silence. Even as the conversation ebbs and flows, we are treated to whooshes of music and ambient sounds: birds chirping or splashing water. Sarah needs to be rescued from anger — to be held and to hold — and it’s possible to see the piece as a parable of healing whereby her recovery, as it were, chimes with that of a society that itself need to relearn to connect, to make contact, during a pandemic.
I confess to often being more engaged by the setting than by the rather overripe story flooding my ears, though it’s fascinating, as with the recent Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse, to mark once again the extent to which 3D sound design is the theatrical order of the day. But C-o-n-t-a-c-t is canny enough to have a proper sense of its natural length, following which we, like Sarah, are released back into the world, and who, in these insular and insulating times, wouldn’t welcome that?
C-o-n-t-a-c-t is playing at three locations around London through 10 October, and then two Manchester engagements from 18 May - 29 June.
Photo credit: Aoife Kennan and Charles Angiama in C-o-n-t-a-c-t (Photo by Pamela Raith)