Gagglebabble return to the stage with Double Vision, a technically ambitious production for the Festival of Voice that is part murder mystery, part gig. Lucy Rivers and Hannah McPake once again toy with the macabre and revel in vulgarity. They are a raffish creative duo, delighting in dark themes and ugly urges, interweaving a mature and serious commitment to art with infectious playfulness.
As the title might suggest, duology is a repeated theme. The audience is ostentatiously greeted by the staff of the cruise ship Empress of the Sea, garishly crimson in Hayley Grindle’s mid-century costumes, sporting joke spectacles that satirise double vision. We become fellow passengers, an onboard audience of the Hitchcockian plot that plays out on silver-screen like gauze, in a skilful blend of live action, shadow-work and silhouette. This tantalising, opaline surface facilitates a cunning trick of perspective, and coerces a disorienting shunt into diplopia. It both veils the action, cataract-like, and provides a surface upon which Joshua Pharo’s projection can flicker in large-scale.
Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock and Earnest Lehman’s unfinished screen play, The Blind Man, the plot centres around the conceit that the eyes will retain a memory of everything they see. To this end, the eyes of a murder victim will hold forever the indelible image of the person who killed them.
Cocktail waitress Mel (Mared Jarman) narrates a twisting tale that takes in the bustle of the ship’s Dahl-esque passengers, who orbit grotesquely around the singularity that is the beautiful, near-blind Serena (Lisa Jên Brown), the ship’s singing sensation and Mel’s personal focus-pull. Brown, front singer of alt-folk group 9Bach is vocally beguiling and particularly mesmerising in the effervescent opening scene. Jarman is an assured story-teller, warmly expressive, with a disarming stage presence, her physical precision astounding in the light of her own visual impairment.
Rivers and McPake joyfully embody a raft of flamboyant characters whose obscene excesses enhance the fragility of the central character. They are joined by the fearless Francois Pandolfo, a performer who delights in discomfort. And there is discomfort.
When the play shifts to Serena’s perspective, the gauze falls, exposing the stage in a fleetingly uncomfortable way. There is a marked shift in tone and pace as we are disgorged from the closely-packed cruise ship onto the Havana shores. Here the narration-come-audio description is less effective, as Brown both describes and performs the action. It is a clunky mix that fails to flow as freely as it should and could be sharpened by further development of the script. The plot is rather obvious too, though not necessarily weakened by it, and some opportunities in this “other half” for more glorious grotesqueness are missed. Startled portholed eyes could yield their violent memories as well as being alluded to in the text, for example.
River’s multifactorial, impassioned, sultry composition, performed live by Rivers, McPake and musicians Mark O’Connor and Paul Jones, is an unfailing highlight. Throughout, the voice plays a pivotal role, manipulated, echoed, enhanced and projected as it is around the auditorium. It is a medium that evokes imagery as vivid as any visuals, but where there is a huge reliance on technology, one runs the inevitable risk, when this threatens to fail, of leaving performers and their created world painfully unsupported.
Gagglebabble have been ambitious here and they should be applauded for this, undoubtedly. They present a fully accessible, multi-sensorial, technically layered production that has the potential to go beyond ambition born of restricted resources, into the more desirous territory of true creative innovation. But this relies on a binary system, a partnership between brave artists with leading-edge vision and the funding bodies that support them. Innovation takes time and money and I fervently hope Wales’ arts infrastructure can rise to the challenge posed. Welsh companies are either getting gutsy or are getting out and Gagglebabble are arguably spearheading a rightful desire for more.