27 March 2018
The Search for a Black-bowed Albatross reminded Anne Mulleners for a brief moment of the joys of being a child
I love children’s stories. They are comfortable and easy, taking you away from the real world. You can forget everything for just a moment and relish in a combination of happy memories, nostalgia and hope. This is what The Search for a Black-browed Albatross is like.
In this story we meet a girl called Sam – well, Charlie – well, Sam performing Charlie. Charlie has a brother who for the purpose of this show is called James, although the actor's name actually is James. All the other miscellaneous characters are filled in by the remaining backpackers: Simon Panayi, Laura Potente and Elliot Sargent. Oh, and then there’s the keyboardist Jordan Shiel. Together they are the Backpack Ensemble.
That paragraph is how The Backpack Ensemble communicates with its audience – the fancy way to describe it is metatheatricality. This sometimes runs the risk of being indulgent or unnecessary, but the ensemble use it effectively to create a connection and feeling of community with everyone in the room. They expose themselves, as it were, and as a result lower the stakes enough to guide us on a journey rather than narrate. (Sound familiar? Lights Over Tesco Carpark, hint-hint.) It's used in many great ways: to carry jokes – shoutout to Shiel – and to offer comment and self-reflection on what’s happening, but most importantly to supply the piece with a grown-up feeling. This layer is used to carry the more "serious" questions surrounding loneliness, loss and environmental issues. Without it, the piece would just have been lovely and cutesy to watch – which is already great – and not be as profound and multilayered.
This children’s story was aptly accompanied by the use of projection on white sheets, the ones you used to have to make tents and hiding places. These materials were used in a variety of ways, and each and every one of them was creative and had that playfulness essential for children’s work. The application and use of these materials was superb, and perfected by the interplay between the actors. It made me think that this would very nicely suit outdoor theatre, not only for its references to camping and nature, but its portability. The technical elements would have to be reworked—maybe a mouth harmonica for the keyboardist?—but the piece could work really well in such a context.
Towards the end, I wondered whether the metatheatricality established at the beginning had been almost too much information. It was mentioned that this piece had, unknowingly, narrated the ensemble’s feelings of loneliness and regret after university. However, this "narrative" was not returned to at the end or resolved. Since it stuck with me till the end, I was looking forward to hearing whether the catharsis found by Charlie was the same for Sam. Since I did not, I wondered whether this setup had been necessary, or whether it had leaned a bit too far into the metatheatricality of the piece. Also, the hints of "adult themes" that initially layered the play were left untouched – perhaps as part of the meta setup – but I wanted these issues explored a bit more. As such, the ending of the piece did not engage my grown-up side as much as I had hoped.
Yet, above all, it was a piece that the child in me could relish, enjoy, roll in, hide-and-seek in and love. Its enthusiasm and youth was infectious and made me feel at least eight years younger for its duration (and consequently made me feel terribly old immediately after). Despite losing its undertones towards the end, it did demonstrate what theatre should, can and could be: a space of enjoyment and community.
Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca