For a play about walking into a bar, it’s unsurprising that this piece of original theatre clung to my mind like a sticky pub carpet. Alan Turing, Joan of Arc, and Vincent Van Gogh Walk into a Bar is a charming two act piece of devised theatre, written and directed by the inimitable Paris and produced by Davina Oh. What often felt like a Doctor Who Christmas special blossomed into a heartfelt and scathing examination of modern historiography and our mental constructions of historical characters. While it focuses heavily on modern interpretations of Alan Turing, Joan of Arc, and Vincent Van Gogh, these interpretations are explored through the protagonist Rockie: a 12-year-old who’s been displaced into an alternate dimension comprised of a single bar and its three patrons (guess who).
The performances are, on the whole, superb. Ewan Peddley crafts a beautifully endearing and sincerely earnest performance of an unabashedly gay Alan Turing, who has to reckon with chronic misrepresentation from historians and worst of all: Benedict Cumberbatch (warning: this play is not kind to Cumberfans of any sort). Peddley’s performance is refined, sophisticated and occasionally very detailed. Simple hand gestures and body language were weaponised in a successful attempt to give Turing a grace and elegance which has been sorely lacking from his other portrayals. What’s put to the stage is an enrap-turing presentation of a man who history could never seem to allow an easy breath.
Carla Field’s Joan of Arc is exactly as you’d imagine: zealous and sharp as a tac. Perhaps ‘naive’ would be too simple a word to use for Joan, as she is far too much a woman of the world to be given such a reductive description. But her Captain America-like sincerity and guilelessness radiates throughout every scene: a woman very much out of time, but armed with the timeless wisdom of her faith. At times, however, she felt restrained in her patriotic fervour. This may very well have been a conscious decision which reflects her understanding of the character, but it certainly left her portrayal feeling a bit uniform. On the whole, Field gives an exceedingly honest and charmingly antiquated performance which truly draws the audience into her historical conflict and makes one consider one’s own projections upon figures of history.
In a different vein entirely, Kate Scott (of Cream for Honi fame and failure) serves up a rich and frothy portrayal of an arrogant and oft unphased Vincent Van Gogh. Reminding the audience of his dedicated museum before you can draw breath, this version of Vincent is peppy, bright, and without a trace of misery. Scott carries Vincent with a confidence and Dutch swagger which imbues the artist with a liveliness often absent from our contemporary conception of him. But it all comes back to Rockie in the end. As the main character, they operate more as a foil to the stories around them than a traditional protagonist.
Madhullikaa Singh’s Rockie is like a kid in a candy store, rushing down the aisles of history and sweeping everything off of the shelves in the process. Singh’s Rockie is sweet, precocious and just childish enough without being irritating. Rockie mostly facilitates the audience’s exploration of Alan, Joan, and Vincent’s unique trauma’s of historical revisionism, but also has a storyline of their own: one vaguely defined by a dying earth, an escape to Mars, and a dead or dying Mother. That being said, each actor sincerely brings their character to life and presents a version of these well trodden personas but with a far side more nuance to them.
All of this hinged on the snappy writing and tight direction of writer director, Paris. Much of the dialogue is organic and humorous, with only the occasional moment of indulgence. This play is firmly a comedy, much to my delight, and while it deals with some reasonably emotional beats, Paris managed to straddle that delicate balance without too many screw ups. Occasionally though, the dialogue borders on shallow, with some beautifully constructed and excellently delivered lines having little by way of discernible substance to them. While the writing was generally a firm win, many of the scenes showed obvious evidence of significant and carefully-constructed direction. Alan, Joan, and Vincent each had respective monologues, and while they were brought to life by their individual performers, their choreography made them feel lived in. Joan of Arc’s reminiscence of a battle long since won was faithfully re-enacted by nothing but the bodies on stage beside her.
One of the true highlights of this production was the sound, set, and costuming. A great deal of credit must be given to co-music directors/composers Nick Cranch and Julia Magri, along with band members Alex Paterson, Rafi Owen and Charlie Hollands. The original score and performance matched each moment perfectly, with individual characters having unique symphonic signatures. The music which accompanied Alan’s puzzle monologue is an excellent example of this, with the plodding and inquisitive score framing his character perfectly. The set was also a strong point of this production. Like all SUDS productions it was minimal, but set designer Eleanor Fair did a lot with very little. The bar itself was exactly the sort you’d imagine and the stage was littered with lots of minor details which made dissecting it a joy. The happy hour menu itself held some meaning, with each drink being a subtle reference to the play’s core cast and the order in which they’re listed, mirroring the order in which Rockie explores their past. Bianca Laycock’s costuming was also superb. While she veered away from historical accuracy, her costuming choices precisely and elegantly reflected the period and attitudes of each character. Two standout pieces were Vincent’s starry night denim jacket and Joan’s act 1 ensemble – both truly scintillating selections.
There was a lot to love about Alan Turing, Joan of Arc, and Vincent Van Gogh Walk into a Bar: the acting was evocative, the writing was snappy, the production design was playful, and the music never missed a beat. It doesn’t make any sense until you see it, but when you do, you’ll be hard pressed to stop watching.
Alan Turing, Joan of Arc, and Vincent Van Gogh Walk into a Bar runs until Saturday the 28th of November at the Cellar Theatre.