Indie theatre ensemble Elbow Room launch their hearts through space and time with a queer sci-fi romance, as part of Theatre Works' Selected Works Program
This show is of that type that’s too generous. It wants to tell us about two extraordinary lives, and do this in the sweetly innocent style of a musical. It also wants to tell us a story about the future, and the possibility of a new language, as partly outlined in the theories of Noam Chomsky. It’s like musical theatre, plus science fiction, plus Noam Chomsky. You see the problem.
What would have been so tempting for the show’s creators is that these things really do coexist in the life and work of Samuel R Delany; a black, bisexual, radical-libertarian science fiction writer. And in making a show about him they have, understandably enough, tried to get as much as they could into the theatre. It probably didn’t help that the script was devised collectively. The program notes talk about a process of ‘co-creation’, where director and cast all went away together to read Delany’s books, and ‘share responses.’ Which does make one suspect all that sharing together made more, and the more got stuck on stage.
The part that survived best is the biography: the story of Delany, known as Chip, his wife Marilyn, a poet; and of their marriage, which is large enough to include Chip’s relentless cruising. Chip and Marilyn are played beautifully by Ray Chong Nee and Laura Maitland, who keep the persistently sincere performance style you usually see from characters who will also burst into song. Ray Chong Nee is particularly good at this sustained artificial innocence, while staying just quick enough, just intelligent enough, to stop Chip from becoming a caricature Nice Guy. And, as in a musical, the extra innocence helps deliver extra amounts of very strong, very pure emotion. When Chip begs Marilyn to keep writing her poems, because for him, they cascade, there’s no room for laughter: you just watch him mean it. And when Chip and Marilyn decide to have a threesome with Bob (Tom Dent), who is an ex-con, now homeless, there’s nothing ‘perverse’ or even especially sexual about it. It’s more like a Rocky Horror with no Frank N Furter, where Brad and Janet stayed at home, talked it over, and decided for themselves it was just right to have more sex with everybody.
In between the scenes with Chip and Marilyn, and Chip and Marilyn and Bob, are scenes from Chip’s science fiction novels. And these, after a while, get so packed, so over-complicated, that they make no sense at all. There’s a mission, the search for a new kind of alien language, then a virus, suspicion, a pirate bay, treachery, then a birth, then a cranial uplink. Towards the end, there’s some sort of big emergency, people are running to and fro saying things like, “It won’t stop!” and you really, really don’t know what “it” is. The idea of a hope for a new language, to take us beyond the human, into something closer to “light, in water” is obvious enough. But that idea doesn’t seem interesting, because we keep breaking off to watch Chip and Marilyn get so much hope out of our old language. Trapped inside this thing they kept making, and making, the cast do their best. Emily Tomlins as Jewel, our interplanetary narrator and guide, brings a lovely benign calm to her early scenes. And Paul Blenheim has a fun turn as the Baroness, an English grande dame, who has survived, inexplicably, in a galaxy far, far away.
Do see this show. It’s overstuffed, but it’s by no means a failure. It’s worth it just for the scenes where Chip and Marilyn get to believe, even for a little while, that we can talk ourselves into a new, reasonable, sexual freedom. A kind of clean liberty.