The Star Rover

Thu 6th – Sat 22nd August 2015

reviews

Polly Jacobs

at 11:17 on 16th Aug 2015

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Set in the shadow of the hangman's noose, David Green executes a truly stellar stage adaptation of The Star Rover by Jack London.

Darrell Standing, played by Joe Darbyshire was an incredible actor. His highly eloquent and deeply philosophical narrative was never quelled by his torturous treatment onstage. He was portrayed with the body of a marionette, yet possessed an extraordinary mind that seemed to float a few inches above his shackled form. He left his audience reeling, covering metaphorical ears and screaming "No more!", because his anguish and agony was so painfully, soul-wrenchingly real.

The darkened space and physical inhumanity was such that one was unwilling to learn that it was set in Reading Prison, 1913 - an inescapably real place and time. The wardens, those with control, were masochistic and depraved, portrayed without a single modicum of likeability. Terrifyingly believable, they demonstrated a mob-like glee at the sufferings of a fellow human.

Most striking is the complete difference between the scenes presenting the mind and body retrospectively. The performance is an empathetic challenge as far as the 'real-life' parts are concerned, but the more meditative, conceptual scenes were nothing short of breathtakingly beautiful and it left onlookers wanting to grasp these moments with bare hands for their sheer and utter radiance.

A sprite-like presence, Silvia Colluci's dancing was dazzling. Spectral and lucid, she was childishly and delightfully free, a manifestation of the power of the human psyche that empowered and uplifted. The live music was utterly effective in creating an otherworldly sensation during these scenes.

This was by no means an easy watch, and not one for light entertainment, but it was compelling and truly a first-rate performance. The acting overshadowed all previously seen at this year's festival. The sort of show that leaves you grasping for words that never fully materialise so you are left in pensive silence for a short while. This is really a performance not to be missed. Utterly incomparable to all I have seen before, this performance is one of emotional intensity, and at moments could certainly be described as nothing less than first-rate art.

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Benjie Beer

at 12:05 on 16th Aug 2015

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How do we survive suffering? How great is our suffering next to those of others? Do we care enough for society’s outcasts? These are all questions posed by the gritty and grabbing Star Rover, as it explores what it is to be the oppressed underdog in a world that refuses to listen to the down and out.

Shedload Theatre’s debut Fringe production marks one hundred years since the publication of Jack London’s novel on which the play is based, and they certainly do justice to the anger and violence with which the radical Socialist London described the plight of the poor. We follow the university professor Daryl Standing, played with outstanding power by the frankly superb Joe Darbyshire, as he waits out the last hours of his life on death row in Reading Gaol. Darbyshire spits furiously as he tells us about the horrors done to him in the prison, from five years of solitary confinement to his long days in a straitjacket. ‘Ten days in a straitjacket,’ he hallows as he stares accusingly at the audience, making us all complicit in this suffering. ‘Do you know what that means?’

The play moves at a melancholic pace, the stage remaining almost perpetually dark and the centre of attention always being the grandiose Darbyshire, who takes this position with relish. Live music comes from the onstage guitarist David Green, also the show’s director, which adds to the already eery and discomfiting atmosphere. As events move forward, Shedload use a light touch of physical theatre to explain Standing’s increasingly spiritual experiences in overcoming his pain. An anonymous girl, depicted as a figment of his imagination, runs about the stage switching lights on and off as he watches perplexed and fascinated.

This puts the play in binary, however. The only two kinds of scene we see here are either the ethereal appearances of the girl, or Standing explaining his suffering to either himself or to the prison staff. It must be said that it often feels like a one-man show. Darbyshire’s four fellow cast members are given only a glimmering chance to even show themselves on stage compared to his comparatively titanic role, which is tiring. The physical side of this show is not explored enough, and leaves you wanting a little more variety.

This is still a marvellously gritty production, however. It grabs the collar of the audience and does not let go until the hour has passed, when it is sure they have understood what it is to suffer as Standing has done. We are transported with him into a state of mind where the fear of death has absented him, and he merely wonders what he will become ‘after the dark’. Star Rover is powerful, dark and necessary, and I would highly recommend you take yourself away from comedy for just this hour from which you emerge feeling sober and understanding.

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