Handle With Care, Dante of Die at Lok’nStore, Poole

handle1THERE is always something very special about site-specific productions, many of which tend to be promenade performances too. Some of the most remarkable pieces of theatre I have seen have been conceived along these lines.

I can still recall an open air performance about Carl Linnaeus, and the thrill of catching a fleeting glimpse of a unicorn, at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden for example, although it was probably more than 20years ago now.  More recently, a production of Death and the Ploughman at Bristol’s atmospheric Arnos Vale Cemetery, in which we processed by torchlight through the old graveyard, was wonderfully evocative .Only last week, Wimborne Community Theatre’s What They Left Behind was an extraordinarily moving theatrical experience.

Written and created by Chloe Moss and Dante or Die founders Daphna Attias and Terry O’Donovan, Handle With Care is a new site-specific promenade production performed in the extensive corridors and numerous storage units of Lok’nStore, Poole.   The story of one woman, Zoe, and her belongings, the play examines how she, and by implication we, accumulate objects and why we so often place very particular and intimate meanings on seemingly trivial things.

handle 2The play begins in 1988 when Zoe, beautifully played as a young girl by Amy Dolan, is saying goodbye to her brother Mikolas, or Miki as he is known, finely played by Benjamin Humphrey in his professional debut.   Filled with the optimism of youth, he is deciding what to take with him on his Great Backpacking Adventures – the title of one of his books.  The little red elephant will certainly find its way into his rucksack, but much of the rest will be put into store.

The closeness of brother and sister is perfectly captured in Dolan’s and Humphrey’s performance and there is much lively humour and youthful bantering. He repeatedly urges her to join him. “Maybe next year” she replies.

And then come the goodbyes and it slowly dawns on us, the audience, that Zoe will never see her brother again. As Miki removed his clothes and his sister, ever so carefully, tidied and folded them, this proved to be just the first of many, many scenes of astonishing tenderness and intimacy.  The mood continued following Zoe along a maze of corridors,  listening to endless replays of what was to be his last ever message on an answerphone while sadly watching the continually repeating home movie of a young Miki unwrapping the little elephant in which, over his short life, he had invested so much love.

Time passes, it is 1993, and Zoe has a boyfriend, Daniel, played with tremendous spirit by Elan James Weedon. There’s is a tempestuous relationship, and although he means so well, after all he has just caught two buses and walked 20 minutes to pay Zoe a surprise visit, he is a clumsy romantic (he has already drunk a fair bit of the wine) and succeeds only in irritating his girlfriend.  Irritations lead to violent argument and culminate in Daniel ruining the cassette tape of favourite music Miki had lovingly compiled for his sister.

We watched in horror, for we knew the significance the tape, as he deliberately destroyed it without any realisation of just what he was doing.   (Incidentally, his biography in the programme informs us that he puppeteered the Goose in Warhorse; that was another fine performance – congratulations Mr. Weedon!)

Five years on and Zoe is heavily into drink and possibly other substances, and in the claustrophobic surroundings of another storage locker we enter Zoe’s mind.  Huge toy animals are dancing and, as a second and older Zoe takes over and gives birth to a baby daughter, we notice the ceiling above our heads is decorated with baby clothes and other accessories.  It is a surreal and uncomfortable experience but one which, again, works brilliantly well.

We move on, avoiding the child’s toys that clutter the corridor, following the older Zoe, played by Rachael Spence, and end up in 2007 when she and Simon (Stephen Henry) are splitting up and dividing their belongings – the contents of their house and their lives together.  There is a little light relief when it comes to the hideous bronze pot, but for the most part it is an unsettling experience.  One new object comes to take on a special meaning – a picture of a happy family, drawn by their daughter Miki.

But Zoe is resigned to the fact that there’s has not been a happy marriage, and despite some lovely moments of tenderness together, beautifully portrayed by Spence and Watts, old animosities soon surface.  There was some highly effective use of a number of different dramatic forms here, particularly that of slow motion and, clearly a feature of this production, short repeats of certain key moments in their lives with each other, but it was Zoe’s handling of her late brother’s letters and, in particular, her attempts to recreate the smell of his presence that I found most moving.  It was, at times, eerily reminiscent of my own attempts to deal with bereavement; simple stuff but almost unbearable in its sadness.

It is now 2014 and we meet daughter Miki for the first time, a stroppy, unhappy teenager, anxious, but not quite ready to cut the apron strings.  Played to perfection by 15 year old Lucie Jenkins, for whom Handle With Care was her theatrical debut, she and her mother enjoy a tempestuous relationship which is brought to a head when they argue over Mikolas’ old shirt.

As with many other items in this play, we have come to know something of its significance for Zoe, which is something that her daughter has yet to learn.  It is Zoe’s ultimate giving of the shirt to Miki that marks the beginning of her coming to terms with her grief – a grief that has lasted too long – and the last we see of her is of her dancing, a free spirit, to follow, we assume, in her brother’s footsteps, along one of Lok’nStore’s long corridors.

We come now to the final scene and we are in yet another storage locker.  Zoe has not collected her belongings and “The Worker” (Terry O’Donovan) whom we have seen from time to time walking up and down the passageways going about his daily duties is about to dispose of the contents of the storeroom.  Hitherto, and perhaps unusually for a play of this nature, there had been no audience interaction.   Despite the intimacy of the surroundings, there had been no acknowledgement that we were there at all – we were simply voyeurs, flies on the wall, following Zoe on her journey through life.  It now falls to us, however, to make some uncomfortable decisions as to what should be binned, what should be auctioned (to pay storage costs of course) and what, if anything, should be put aside for sentimental reasons.

We, of course, know the value Zoe placed on many of these items, but, in the grand scheme of things, was the Goblin Teasmade really worth more than the little red elephant or Miki’s shirt?

Handle with Care was a co-commission between Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre for the Arts, South Street Reading, The Lowry and Harlow Playhouse.


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