Phantoms, Mark Bruce Company at Merlin Theatre, Frome

AFTER the deprivations and difficulties of lockdowns, furloughs and closed theatres, dance fans at Frome were delighted to welcome the resident Mark Bruce Company back on stage for the triple bill of new works, Phantoms.

Once again the multi-talented creator has turned his dark imagination to interpreting stories through dance, set to powerful music, against a backdrop that can be the infinity of space or the vast prairies of the American west.

The programme starts with Green Apples, a brief but hugely enjoyable and ferociously physical piece danced to music by The White Stripes. It is followed by  Folk Tales, seven folk songs, arranged, sung and played by the guitar maestro Martin Simpson. They range from a dizzying, foot-stomping jig to the Gothic horror of Betsy, The Serving Maid, an archetypal story of true love and young lives destroyed by implacable parental control.

Phantoms is the last and longest piece, for which Mark Bruce has not only choreographed the movement but also written the music and lyrics, and sings and plays the songs.

With the Day of the Dead as a backdrop and tales of Dracula, goblins, werewolves, wraiths and harpies wheeling around in his mind, Bruce has created a surreal journey through fear, love, revenge and obsession.

It is undeniably powerful. The sound and dance are constantly compelling and you are drawn inexorably into the parade of increasingly feverish imaginings. But there are too many unanswered questions – what on earth is the grotesque goblin with his Pinocchio nose doing? Should we seek a feminist reading in the Boudicca-style knife-wielding women, or are they the familiar blood-hungry Furies of Greek myth? Is that Dracula in the car or a baffled hitch-hiker?

Sadly, Phantoms is less than the sum of its parts. The dancing is consistantly brilliant, the impact is visually arresting and viscerally exciting, but ultimately the work feels derivative. We don’t want all the answers, but after the sound and fury, the blood and lust, the whirling bat wings and the slashing knives, we need to feel some sense of direction.

As with all Bruce’s works there is an inescapably cinematic mood, enhanced as always by Phil Eddolls’ designs and Guy Hoare’s lighting.

His company, led by Eleanor Duval and the charismatic Jonathan Goddard, also includes Bryony Harrison, Carina Howard and Christopher Thomas.

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