Gravity and Levity - The Sunday Times

Gravity and Levity, Shift 2008
Bristol Circomedia (Circo Plus), December 2008

Before I upped sticks and slogged my way to Cheshire to study all things contemporary theatre, I was a resident of sunny Bristol, which houses one of the most famous theatres in the world, the Old Vic.

It was here that - during Bristol’s annual contemporary theatre festival, Mayfest - I first bumped into Gravity and Levity, a dance troupe that investigate love and romance through the medium of levitative dance. It was one of the first pieces of contemporary theatre ever to speak to me on a real level, ever to crawl inside my head and force me to fall in love with it. I remember it like it was yesterday; it was called “Shift”.

Mixing circus acts with traditional theatre, characters would regularly take flight; relationships torn apart in very visual ways by the characters being flung around on ropes, swinging around the stage metres from the floor. Imagine my surprise when I heard they were making a return, and testing their new material in Bristol - when I was home from Manchester, no less.

I was lucky enough to be “in the know” with people with preview tickets to G&L’s latest work, which was being tested in front of selected audiences at Circomedia. The piece, entitled “The Sunday Times”, was meant to be “a traditional theatrical outing with kitchen-sink realism”. Promising a gritty look at Northern street life during the fifties (ironic considering my recent relocation), it had been hotly discussed in certain Bristol circles - even walking to the theatre through the bustling town centre, I could feel the anticipation building. As a fan of Gravity & Levity, I was intrigued to see what they would pull out of the bag.

The curtain opened to a beautifully painted set of a 1950s kitchen in a terraced house in Salford - a poor, slum of a place with the traditional family all sat around the table. The father turned on the radio, noting that “weather’s reet rubbish” as he reads his paper. This sort of thing struck me as a tad insincere - I’ve not been in the north long but it seemed a little stereotypical, and not without hints of the Pythons’ “Yorkshiremen” bit - but before I knew what was what, all four members of the family (mother, father, daughter and baby son, which was thankfully a model) were flung into the air, taking flight around an illuminated sign that descended from the rafters that read “poverty” - as each tried to fly away from it, they were pulled back in. A nice set piece, but a little obvious; I’ve seen better ways of representing the glass ceiling of poverty that didn’t involve massive glowing signs.

The plot was a basic 1950s drama - money’s tight, but love keeps them together. However, the plot felt as if it were an afterthought, as most of the play was spent in flight; the actors, coming down, would then sit in a blackout to get their breath back for five minutes while a pre-recorded narrator plugged up the gaps in the storyline. It seemed to me that the dialogue should have been what plugged these holes, rather than an omnipresent voice making up for lots of needless flying. Gravity and Levity promised a more traditional drama, but I’m sure that by this, they meant that his piece has a painted set, and a story they cut out of the “reader’s stories” page of a 1950s women’s newspaper supplement. The truth is, it was very much of the same, delivered with much less conviction.

Also, while I fully acknowledge that the piece is very much in the “alpha” stage and has thus probably not been rehearsed properly, there were points where actors were hoisted into the air mid-line, and seemed genuinely surprised - they will almost certainly have ironed these kinks out by the time the piece is officially unveiled at Mayfest 09, it just struck me as a little awkward to see these actors attempting to perform, knowing that they could be yanked into the air at a moment’s notice and before they’re finished talking.

I think the problem Gravity & Levity are likely to fly into time and time again is that by painting themselves into the levitation-based art corner, they’ve allowed themselves limited room for maneuver, which is ironic for a company that seems to literally fly away at the first sign of trouble - there’s only so many times you can look on in wonder when yet another person takes flight before you begin to wish that people would stay put long enough to engage in meaningful dialogue. At points, you can almost time to the nearest second when the next flight is going to occur - when you feel the dialogue is running out of steam, whoosh, there they go. It’s as if during the scripting process, the writers simply had “and then everyone flies about for a bit” assigned to a hotkey on their computer and dropped it in every time they were presented with a bit of sticky dialogue or a tough scene, or simply got bored.

I have a lot of genuine affection for Gravity & Levity - much as music nerds hold early concert-going experiencing in unnaturally high regard, and movie buffs will forever champion the first film they saw on the silver screen, I will forever be a fan of Shift. The Sunday Times was their difficult second album, the much-awaited sequel to their initial blockbuster, and it failed to deliver. It may be improved a little before the impending tour, but based on what I saw, don’t expect an improvement on Shift.

Gravity & Levity will be appearing at selected theatres nationally in March and April on the run-up to Mayfest 2009, where they will officially unveil The Sunday Times - after which a formal, announced tour will be scheduled.

Frances Sullivan

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