The team at Extant are in playful mood with their latest project ComBUStion which premiered as a work-in-progress at London’s Liberty festival. Review by Stephen Portlock.
Without that use of block capitals this might well have been a reminder that the ever inventive company have never shirked from darker themes in their attempts to create a truly inclusive theatre which explores the parameters of blindness. However, compared to their last two productions, The Chairs and Flatland (both excellent in their different ways), ComBUStion is a much more family friendly piece of work.
Like Flatland, it is essentially an interactive experience, and here the most obvious reference point is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Audience members find themselves waiting at a bus stop only to find with mild surprise that this particular stop is rather garrulous as, with a rather haughty tone, ‘she’ elucidates her progress in life from a meagre tent pole who spent most of her life locked away, through to her current pride of place. Then comes along a partially sighted man, who crashes into her, and out comes the standard abuse familiar to Daily Mail readers: “benefit scrounger”, “layabout”, before the passengers are led onto the bus.
The overarching themes of the show appear to be the power of positive thinking and of the imagination, since this bus with custard in its tyres needs Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ sung heartily in order to get it started. Audience members are asked to describe familiar bus routes and then are blindfolded. Soon after the bus starts ‘moving’, it becomes clear that it steers a very erratic path taking in not just the streets of London but also Mount Everest and the Taj Mahal. As for where the bus ends up, that would be saying!
All this was great fun and is likely to be especially enjoyable to young children, since the heart, body, brain and energy of the bus are played by blind or partially sighted actors who establish a lively repartee with audience members. While the bus is fixed to the spot, the impression of movement is given by having it rock gently from side to side. That the narrative is predictable in some ways – the moment we are told what to do in the event of an emergency it becomes only a matter of waiting – only adds to the 45-minute piece’s charm.
Furthermore, ComBUStion can be enjoyed twice, since the audience members who do not make it onto the bus get to provide outside noises and to interact with the passengers on the inside. However, there are hints at more serious themes even without the most immediately apparent one of representing blindness without pity or condescension. Prior to attending the show I found myself thinking of Penny Pepper’s poem ‘Bus’ and the sobering reality that for many disabled people public transport appears an oxymoron. Stretching matters a little further, the idea of the blind man at the wheel is a comic cliché from films like Scent of a Woman and novels like Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s Framed.
So overall then maybe a less important work in the Extant repertoire but none the worse for it.