Melbourne Fringe XS show This is Grayson is an enchanting and disturbing ride through the night streets of Newport, says Alison Croggon. And definitely for older children
Immersive theatre in which the set consists of the city itself is a conceit I find irresistibly seductive. It shifts the angle of looking so that everything you look at becomes part of the performance, heightening your perception of everything you see.
If you were an Russian literary theorist called Viktor Shklovsky (one of my favourite critics of all time, notable among other things for beginning his books with heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of landscape) you’d call this effect ostranenie, or defamiliarisation. Ostranenie is the slight dislocation that permits us to see the world around us, smudged and hidden by its everydayness, with new sight. It becomes vivid and strange, its mystery restored. Shklovsky thought this was basically the entire point of art.
This is Grayson, part of the XS program of experimental children’s theatre at Melbourne Fringe, achieves this by driving us around the night streets of Newport and Williamstown in a minibus. It’s a show by immersive specialists Gold Satino that demonstrates their remarkable, nay, beautiful, imagination, but also reveals some of the pitfalls of asking non-specialist companies to make children’s theatre.
This is Grayson stipulates that all children must be accompanied by an adult. It’s recommended for ages 9+, but I would hesitate to take any child under 12 to see this show, unless you were very sure of their robustness. I did take my 23-year-old son, who told me later that although he enjoyed it thoroughly, he also thought it was terrifying. I think he watches too many horror movies, but he has a point.
Before we’re led to the minibus outside the Substation, the audience – about 10 people – is put through an induction process. To the accompaniement of live accordion musix, we are greeted one by one by performers, who ask our name (and if we are allergic to latex), photographed and led to a one of a row of latex baby dolls. They are, we are told, our babies. We put on a baby harness, fit in our latex babies, and go to a waiting room, where we can peruse magazines like New Idea or Women’s Weekly with the other “parents”.
The babies, it must be said, are a little shopworn. Mine had a seriously fractured arm, and another audience member’s seemed to have gangrenous feet. But they are very soft and light to carry.
We’re taken in single file to the minibus out the back, climb in and belt up. A driver in a bell-hop uniform wordlessly gets in and begins the soundtrack, which explains our tour is about to begin, and that there will be 14 points of interest. The sense here is faintly sinister: I felt as if I were in an opening scene from the Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
We then begin our journey, driving slowly through the darkened back streets of Newport and Williamstown. I have a shocking sense of direction, so even though this is my home turf much of the time I didn’t know where we were. The first stop was our introduction to Grayson, an illuminated figure dancing on a darkened football pitch, “a little girl who lives between worlds” who has been waiting for us for “ten thousand two hundred and sixty-one years”. Grayson, we hear, wants to show us who she meets and what she sees. She wants you to know what it’s like to live in the “in-between”.
What follows is a series of encounters in different locations. The “in between” is a queer space where we find the lonely, the alone, the marginalised. Our characters are non-binary, often forlorn, sometimes joyous, sometimes mysteriously hostile. There’s a man running beside the road, carrying a luminous blue bag, eating a sandwich by a street sign. A white-robed figure running towards us along a path in the distance, followed by someone with a blindingly bright light. A delightful posse of dancing emus. Glimpses of a heartbroken lover, to the accompaniment of Adele’s Someone Like You.
The narrative ceases shortly after the introduction, and so we meet these visions in the context that is created for us, as well that created by our own imaginations. I found it almost completely enchanting, peering through misting-up windows at truck depots, chainlink fences, mysterious offices, wondering who was the performer, who was not. But some encounters would definitely frighten young children.
By the Williamstown Cemetery – a fairly spooky part of the suburb at the best of times – we pulled up beside a woman in a twinset and pillbox hat who was pouring milk from one bucket into to another. Then she approached the minibus and threw milk all over it. Shortly afterwards, our silent driver stopped and got out. We watched his lamp dwindling into the distance, silent, suddenly uneasy. Were we going to be abandoned here?
He eventually returned with a bucket and window washer, but this was the point when I thought, quite definitely, that this isn’t a show for young children: a feeling reinforced by another stop where several performers, standing in a row in a dark carpark, threw water bombs at the minibus. They sounded like rocks when they hit.
There were a couple of sublime moments when the everyday intersected with our strange journey through the in-between. Two patrons exiting a gym stood with their mouths open as performers in costume pressed themselves against the mininus windows. And at one point a couple of police on patrol started following us. There was no doubt there was suspicious activity going on.
I adored this show, but the lack of narrative through most of it means it would be hard for young children to situate themselves safely in relation to some of these encounters, and children need to feel safe if their imaginations are to be given free reign.
Beyond convenience, there are good reasons why childrens’ books are sorted into age categories. I hated age divisions as a kid, but at least with a book, children can remove themselves from its reality if they find it too much. Not so when you’re strapped into a darkened minibus at night, even if you’re next to your favourite adult. Highly recommended, but in my view one for the 12-plus crowd.
This Is Grayson, written and directed by Davina Wright, music by Glynn Urquhart. Performed by Ross de Winter, Cazz Bainbridge, Davina Wright, Meredith Rogers, Claudia Nugent, Lachlan McColl, Glynn Urquhart and Xavier O’Shannessy. Presented by Gold Satino in association with The Substation, Newport. XS at Melbourne Fringe, until September 30. Bookings
This show is not accessible for anyone in a wheelchair