Part of the fantastic new festival ‘A Tale Told’, South Street Arts Centre’s short programme of storytelling, Catherine Dyson’s new piece is a story of remembering, of losing and of missing, told to us by an ordinary person in an ordinary way.
The story presents us with an endearing character, who recounts her own story directly to us. She perfectly embodies the awkward conference attendee, over polite, tense around the shoulders and fiddling with her name badge.
As the piece progresses she slips in and out of character portrayal, as she recounts the story of the day her mother went missing. Her performance of the various characters who inhabit this story is very understated, she doesn’t overplay them, just the hint of a different accent or mannerism. We are never lost to the character, the characters are all clearly in the shadow of the narrator. The whole story is within the shadow of the narrator, who is one of the characters herself, a young girl on the day in question and grappling with the strange mysterious happenings of the day. We see hints of an explanation to her mother’s disappearance, the drinking at dinner, the unhappiness in the car, but we see the mother, quite consistently, only through the eyes of the child.
The child our narrator was, was silent and observant, proud and unquestioning of her parents. Our narrator, as an adult, is both brilliantly self-conscious whilst being completely open, spilling the details of her life story without ever being asked, just as she spills the contents of her bag on to the table, in front of strangers in a strange place. She quickly apologises, and packs it away again.
Catherine uses really simple representation, the objects in her handbag mostly, a flip chart and a coat, to recreate memories, but also to symbolise loss and provide the audience with a very important sense of missing. The set contains a coat, but no wearer, a laptop but no owner, some wine but no drinker. Even her own phone is full of spaces, as makes several calls that are never answered. We are presented with spaces, gaps all through the performance, that sometimes feels uncomfortable. The whole piece is paced very slowly, it is detailed and yet vague, like her technicolour memory of that fateful day. The pace picks up as she reaches crucial moments in the story, but there is always a sense of some kind of gap. At times, when she is lost in the recounting of the memory, the piece slips behind the fourth wall and we lose our character for a moment, but she soon returns to the room, realigning the chairs, or making a phone call.
It is refreshing to see her open the curtains of the theatre space and use the street lamp outside to light her face, and because of the reliance on real objects, making her set and performance feel very honest, the addition of theatre lighting from above feels somewhat out of place. This piece would work wonderfully in an actual meeting room, office or bland empty conference centre, and might perhaps then draw on a directness or a realism that is occasionally lacking.
Despite the story centring around the mystery of her missing mother, the audience don’t feel a sense of mystery, we are not compelled to know where she is or what happened. The piece is not about solving the puzzle, it is about the spaces that people who are ‘missing’ from our lives leave behind, and the loss and vulnerability that can shape who we are. It is a comment on the eternal struggle to hold on to people and things that are important, like trying to grasp hold of memories, to force them to stay present, to keep the people within them alive. It is an engaging performance from a skilled story teller, who bravely approaches this story in a simple, quiet and understated way, comfortable in the uncomfortable silences and charming throughout.