BoxLess Theatre are becoming known for their innovative style of physical theatre, and now as they return to London, and the Lion and Unicorn Theatre, with their new play Hedgehog, we see them push the boundaries even further as the company’s movement director takes to the stage in a play written for one female voice, but which utilises a cast of three.
Before the show even begins, we see Manda full of energy and life, caught up in the familiar dance beats of the late nineties. But now and again there’s a glitch, a burst of static which temporarily drains her of her energy. This is the first clue that Manda is struggling with something. Mental health is being explored more than ever on stage, but with Hedgehog one person’s struggle is brought vividly to life in a heady mix of physicality, light and sound.
Manda is a teenager on the eve of a new millennium, which she dreams will also bring new hope. As Hedgehog progresses, we go back with Manda as she examines her own memories of the previous two years. Leaving school and getting a part time job in a vet’s surgery; the show takes its title from Manda’s encounter with a small boy and the animal he found by the side of the road.
It’s not a linear storyline, and nor should it be, because our memories don’t come in that way. Manda’s recollections come in loosely connected fragments; interactions with her parents, to first sexual experiences all play over in Manda’s mind. In a nod to the last millennium an old overhead projector is used to set the timeframe, or share photographic memories of the past.
It’s amazing just how familiar Manda’s tale is, from visiting a dodgy pub with sticky carpets to the crushing realisation that your best friend isn’t really the friend you thought they were. Alexander Knott has written a play that speaks to everyone and anyone who has found themselves on the outside looking in, and who wishes to be more than the sum of their dysfunctional parts.
Director, Georgia Richardson had a big challenge on her hands, not only to have three people telling one story, but to create a sense of anxiety in a physical form. Not only has Richardson risen to that challenge, she has delivered a wholly formed piece of physical theatre that is as thought-provoking as it is delicately charming.
The soundscape created by Sam Heron and James Demaine is defined by the ebb and flow Manda’s mental state. As Manda’s struggles with her own demons, we move from cheesy Spice Girls to suffocating sounds that drown out everything else. It’s a remarkable achievement the way sound is used so effectively to replicate the feeling of anxiety for the audience.
Zöe Grain gives a truly exceptional performance, she sets Manda up as a cocky fun-loving teenager, with an undercurrent of anger issues, but also acutely aware of the situation around her. She speaks directly to the audience, justifying Manda’s decisions and seeking validation. It creates an inescapable bond between performer and audience, so that when Manda’s world crumbles, you descend with her.
Emily Costello and Lucy Annable both take on the role of ‘Them’, the role allows some characters from Manda’s memory to take a physical form, often bringing some light comedy with them, but more often than not they are manifesting Manda’s thoughts and feelings. When you watch Costello and Annable closely, you see an immense synchronicity which reinforces the idea that this is one person with multiple layers.
When Manda says “I never feel safe,” you immediately understand why, and empathise completely. Manda is a butterfly unable to escape the cocoon of her own anxiety, and this intensely physical piece of theatre translates the struggle with anxiety in to a living breathing beast. Hedgehog is exquisitely written, viscerally performed, and splendidly staged.