Theatre review: Love Song of the Electric Bear

Love Song of the Electric Bear. Picture: Scott Rylander

Love Song of the Electric Bear. Picture: Scott Rylander - Credit: Archant

Snoo Wilson was among an innovative group of writers who set up Portable Theatre in the 1970s to present socially and politically provocative drama, with minimal scenery and effects. Few these days have heard of them, but they started a movement that now inspires contemporary cutting-edge theatre. There was a danger that this play, never before performed in Europe, might seem dated or pretentious to a modern audience, but not at all.

From the moment this energetic and talented young cast turn themselves into a bicycle and the characters riding it, we are on a roller-coaster of inventive merriment. This is ensemble performance at its best. Diane Beck, Laura Harding, William Hartley and Chris Levers play an extraordinary number of roles with conviction, wit and very little confusion. Their dependency on costumes, props, and scenery is minimal: they construct and dismantle what they need as they go along.

They support Ian Hallard as Alan Turing and Bryan Pilkington as Porgy the bear. The former portrays, with near-perfect timing and immense sympathy and understanding, the complex personality of the man who helped defeat the Nazis in World War II, while retaining the writer’s cartoon-like presentation of a story which, in spite of the light-hearted spirit of writing and acting, is heroic and tragic.

As for that giant teddy-bear – well, the first appearance of this pantomime creature is a shock. But Porgy is far from being an amusing gimmick. He is pivotal, a Greek chorus, commenting on the action and giving advice and support, while also feeding important information and moving the plot along when required. The task is gargantuan and Pilkington accomplishes it where a lesser actor might have tipped into farce, or, worse, tedium.

Paul Freeman (sound) and Tom Kitney (lighting) provide an interesting background using contemporary technology to create the 1940s context without being patronising, combining clunky sound effects and classical music to indicate the universality of the themes as well as the jokey presentation. This production is perfectly adapted to the intimate space at The Hope, a new venue presenting quality work. Unsubsidized, yet the tickets, unlike in so many larger, smarter performance areas, are affordable. Good luck to them! The play deserves a wider audience – which perhaps it will find.

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Rating: Four stars

Until 21st March.

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