It's no surprise that Belt Up Theatre's current double-bill at the Southwark Playhouse had a sell-out run at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Belt Up is an exciting young theatre company determined to push theatrical boundaries, break down fourth walls and allow the spectator to discover the exhilarating experience that live performance can offer.
Kicking off the evening is a radical re-working of a Moliere classic – Tartuffe. Company member James Wilkes has written and directed a metatheatrical farce which sees the discredited Orgon (Dominic J Allen) recreate his traumatic dealings with the infamous French conman (played by Marcus Emerton). Incorporating a medley of theatrical styles such as Clown and Mime and packed full of slapstick contemporary references, The Tartuffe leaves you feeling slightly out of breath as well as thoroughly entertained.
Audience interaction is central as cast members regularly seek out and cue willing volunteers who then proceed to become temporary performers. The results are quite often hilarious although it has to be said that the occasional improvised line of unapologetic dialogue is in danger of alienating the more self-conscious spectator. However, the continuous exchange between stage and auditorium is ultimately what makes this production so vibrant and it is refreshing to see the audience genuinely acknowledged and then immersed in the developing action.
This form of exchange is heightened and continued in the second production of the evening – a brilliant theatrical interpretation of Franz Kafka's classic existential novel, The Trial. For 70 minutes the spectator is plunged into a visceral nightmare as they journey through a bureaucratic world that is impossible to make sense of or escape from. Fiercely energised actors perform within the darkened vaults of a lesser-used venue at the Playhouse which lends itself wonderfully to the piece. Jethro Compton's atmospheric lighting design cleverly enhances the cavernous interior while creating an apt sense of confusion and disorientation in space. Much of the performance is lit from within by actors equipped with lighters, candles and small torches and some of the text is delivered in complete darkness.
Audience members are transformed into active participants literally caught up in the nonsensical world of Joseph K (superbly played by Dominic J Allen who also wrote the piece). All in all, the company should be held in very high regard for creating this outstanding total theatre experience. Wrap up warm though as the space is cold!
Belt up Theatre won the Edinburgh International Fringe award (EIF) in 2008. If their current theatrical offering is anything to go by, it was a much-deserved accolade.