This coal-inspired surreal piece completely mis-fires.
Veteran Welsh company Volcano Theatre tackle the subject of mining in their new show. Quite what they’re trying to say about it is entirely beyond me, however, because ‘Black Stuff’ is a confusing mish-mash of half ideas, underdeveloped set pieces and incoherent babble.
It’s staged in a ‘secret location’, a warehouse a little out of the centre of Edinburgh. Across a wide concrete hall there are several different spaces that the audience are supposed to stand in and wander around – some of which are covered with coal. Meanwhile, the actors perform surreal snippets of text and movement. There’s a lot of shouting. At one point two performers nail together some wood into railway lines. One is accused of being bourgeois while the other talks about ‘Anna Karenina’. Tolstoy’s novel seems to be a recurring theme – later, Anna Karenina actually turns up and dies on the makeshift tracks. Then they play a game of cricket.
It’s all performed by four actors (three men in dirty overalls, and a woman in a dress and high heels – not the best thing to wear while walking over coal). The cast are trying really hard to make this whole piece work. You’d think just the low-ceilinged, warehouse venue might add some atmosphere on its own, but the show is spaced out so badly that the atmosphere is as about as intense as an Adam Sandler rom-com.
The idea for ‘Black Stuff’ was apparently planted when director Paul Davies was given the manuscripts of ‘The Hangman’s Assistant’ by Welsh writer Dai Alexander. This is mentioned several times, but it’s anyone’s guess what ‘The Hangman’s Assistant’ is actually about.
I realise I've not offered much insight into what ‘Black Stuff’ is trying to achieve, but I’m not sure even the people behind the show know that. It’s fine to stage a surreal piece; to offer up a series of images and symbolic movements; it’s fine to not have a plot. But when these surreal set pieces make no coherent link, aren’t atmospheric or affecting and make the audience feel as though they know less about the piece after they've seen it than they did before they went in, you have a problem. A rather big problem.