Humming and whirring

17 April 2019

Lucy Thompson marvels at the lights and sounds of How To Save A Rock

Don’t you wonder sometimes

About sound and vision?

What struck me as most enjoyable about How To Save A Rock were the visuals and soundscapes. As part of the show’s goal to be carbon-neutral, standard SFX are eschewed in favour of creating sound with props and voices (wind-rushing, humming, and described landscapes), while the lighting comes from solar lamps, light bulbs, and the bicycle generator.

Going in the audience are faced with a dystopia of litter onstage; to me, a familiar trope (for reasons unknown, I’ve seen quite a lot of fringe theatre about climate change – and much of it had a similar set-up with rubbish scattered around the set). How To Save A Rock sets itself apart with its integration of light; being given solar lights and picking your way through the detritus made it feel like we were navigating this world. The glowing light bulbs among the rubbish add a fairy-tale feel, albeit a fairy tale in which all the polar bears are dead, the 100 companies who produce 71% of greenhouse gas emissions haven’t been stopped, and the ozone layer is torn to shreds.

The obvious downside in this creative approach to lighting is that your play is at the mercy of an unreliable bike – which is not a position you ever really want to be in. It’s an uncertainty that reflects the play’s central concern about the future and how it will look, but nonetheless it’s also distracting, and when the bicycle broke you often couldn’t see the characters clearly or tell what was happening.

Even so, I did like the use of light bulbs to imagine the Blackpool illuminations. It felt ingenuitive and beautiful, and especially effective in the darkness (or maybe I just enjoyed the shiny elements). That’s another note; given the noise made by pedalling the bike whenever the lights were on, darkness was often accompanied by silence. This allowed the play to have real moments of stillness; in the peat bog, the lack of sound or movement generated an eerie sense of place.

Occasionally litter was reused in other forms in the play – a whole character (or plot device – hard to have depth when you’re a puppet) was imaginatively constructed from crisp packets, coat hangers, and plastic bottles, and train noises were recreated simply by rattling a tin. Although not the most effective, these choices suited the slightly surreal vibe of How To Save A Rock. And also occasionally the actors used their own voices to layer sound, with mournful humming over their descriptions of landscapes.

How To Save A Rock has brief moments of beautiful storytelling, glimpses of something intriguing in what otherwise felt low-energy and had an over-contrived, unconvincing plot. I’m being generous in counting lines as part of the soundscape, but specifically when the characters were describing their surroundings (the “gigantic celestial garden” of offshore wind turbines, or the ancient vastness of the Scotland bogs), I felt far more willing to be brought along on the journey and – in those moments – I enjoyed it.

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photo credit: Beatrice Debney