Is it a bird? Is it a symbol? Is it a bit emotionally manipulative?

Is it a bird? Is it a symbol? Is it a bit emotionally manipulative?

27 March 2018

The Search for a Black-bowed Albatross made Lily James feel sad – but did it earn it?

A show about grief, about birdwatching, and a show about leaving university, about our mums, and our dads, and brothers. It’s an open-hearted show that explicitly encourages you to identify its own symbols and references, from the use of Tubular Bells forward.

And this is an interesting, jarring way to start the show. The music is stirring, but undeniably sinister, fraught with its associations with The Exorcist (which, of course, they explain). It’s a bold choice, with mixed results: hearing it makes me anticipate strangeness, not the overwhelming warmth and sweetness that will follow it. The performers follow Charlie, whose story is a hybrid of all their own journeys. And she goes on (as they explain) a journey to the Middle of Nowhere to find this albatross, that symbol of dreadful luck for sailors that, as they very funnily point out, has all the same bits as a typical bird.

The stagecraft is magical, thoughtful and is all performed with such professionalism that the cast appear utterly casual. There are moments in which the images become a little twee: Charlie and her father making their hands into birds behind the screen feels this way, as does the extended scene in which Charlie sinks to the bottom of the river and is scooped back up. There’s none of the peril or edginess that the Tubular Bells set me up to expect. But then Charlie is wearing a very sweet yellow raincoat from the get-go, so perhaps I could have anticipated this nostalgic, picture-book approach to "journeying".

I can’t help but feel that some of the combinations of music and image are making me emotional without investing. It’s the kind of twinkly, forest-spa-piano music that makes my eyes feel prickly, but in an unexamined way. I’m sad because it’s telling me I’m sad, in the way that ads do. It’s like being tickled. If there was something flat, unnerving or eerie in this music, I would have adored how it interplayed with the shadow puppets – our relationships with our parents as we move, often cruelly, into independence, are unnerving.

As much as the cast build their processes into show, the conclusion feels like it undoes that work they’ve been setting up. What looks like it might be a brave statement in favour of compromise, of returning, (of being nice to your mum), reverts back to an idea that we should seek out our grand symbols. Of course it’s gorgeous when Charlie frees the albatross from the plastic bag, but it’s wish-fulfilment, and for that reason it doesn’t feel truthful. The end song compounds this feeling: having established as performers that life is messy, sometimes unspeakably nasty and without reason, as characters, they undo this message. But maybe they don’t, because I’m saying it, so I got it. The response in the audience was a surge to a standing ovation – it’s really hit a nerve. I just wonder if they could have tapped it instead. 


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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato