At the periphery of Griffin Theatre’s inventive new production UFO are twelve glowing orbs affixed to a metallic oval structure. Six on the left. Six on the right. As they glow, they cast light on three astroturf islands, suspended on a black stage and inhabited by a 1:8 scale model of a house, a shed and the duck-occupied golf course that comprises its grounds. The ominous gleam conjures the spectre of an alien presence in the room, incapable of being understood by human observers and seemingly uninterested in our presence.
It’s a remarkably effective playground for the production’s talented cast, composed of Matt Abotomey, James Harding, Angela Johnston and Tahlee Leeson. But, it is the marvel of director and video designer Solomon Thomas’ cine-theatre spectacle that brings this play to life. As the actors move around the space they switch between embodying their characters and participating in a film crew, wielding high tech cameras that instantly beam images of the models onto projection screens above the audience. Complementing these models are intricately detailed miniatures of the actors, 3-D printed after full facial scans and painted with impressive clarity by Miri Badger. Positioned around the dollhouse set, they convey an uncanny valley effect in the bluish light, subverting the childlike wonder of the tiny Tudor home, complete with Persian rugs, a spiderweb and a defaced image of former monarch Queen Elizabeth II. The dolls, appearing as shrunken simulacra of the characters, engage our focus completely, beguiling us with their range of affective gestures. At the play’s most brilliant moments, it is as though the dolls themselves are the subjects of the narrative and the actors exist to manipulate their expressive limbs and give a (literal) voice to their story.
As the plot unfurls, the camera follows the meanderings of the figurines engaged in the monotonous activity of recording the pattern of the titular UFO’s flashing lights. It quickly becomes clear that this is not an ordinary sci-fi narrative. Here, contact with a potential alien race has not precipitated a military intervention, or even a media circus, but merely the arrival of a few ill equipped bureaucrats from a nameless agency. Instead of pondering the nature of extra-terrestrial contact, which is decidedly beyond their pay grade, these characters air workplace grievances and worry about the fact that they are rapidly running out of paper on which to write. There is a whimsy to the absurd back-and-forth between Abotomey and Johnston’s characters which opens the work, as they attempt to subtly manipulate one-another into abandoning their posts in the search for more paper. It is Johnston’s eventual resolution to venture back to the house and ask their reclusive and unnerving co-worker Glen for paper that provides the initial thrust of the play.
Her adventure eventually sends her to the garden shed, where a brilliant Leeson is employed to shoo away the ducks who gather near the UFO. Instead, we find her character gorging on expired mouth ulcer medication that’ll “send half your face completely numb” and breaking the rules of the group’s employment by checking her phone. Here, we encounter several of the recurring questions that give the play its vitality: What does this strange alien-looking thing want anyway? What’s the point of writing down a bunch of useless data about it? And, perhaps most pressingly, why does it have bluetooth?
Whilst writer Kirby Medway’s script finds humorous ways to diffuse these core mysteries at the play’s climactic moments, a great deal of what might come next is left up to our imagination. Instead of provoking reflection or discussion amongst the characters, the revelation that alien life couldn’t care less about humans and their petty affairs is taken as a final declaration. In doing so, some of the potential of that strikingly original thought is squandered at the close of the work. Consequently, there is not so much a clear ending here as a resolution, spoken by the characters, to end the work. Even so, there was a clear feeling amongst the audience after the show, that in the absence of finality what we had been left with was a sense of great potential. In my mind, there is no doubt that what we were perceiving was the undeniable potential of a cast and crew of young creative minds, who are already capable of pushing the boundaries of theatrical form to ingenious comic effect.
Upon exiting the theatre after the show, I noticed a little glass jar at the bar that asked patrons to leave a three word review of the production. In the spirit of that delightful suggestion, here is mine — Intergalactic techno gem.
Griffin Theatre’s UFO plays at the SBW Stables Theatre until April 29th.