OneStopArts.com / Review / Writing: Journalism

Gender confusion: Specie at the New Diorama Theatre (***)

Fat Git Theatre first came to our attention last year, and their work since then has been consistently experimental, surreal and ambitious. Their latest, Specie, conforms to all of the above, and again it feels like they’ve bitten off slightly more than they can chew, but there’s a lot here to praise. At the New Diorama Theatre.

The premise of Specie is the titular drug, which allows people to change gender. Through narration (and interwoven into the plot), we see how the advent of this drug has changed the way people think about life and gender. In particular, we focus on the story of Louis, whose rather tragic tale makes a strong effort to force the audience to re-evaluate their own perceptions about gender.

It’s not just in the content, but interwoven into the production: this is a challenge. Actors break character for scene changes and stare out at the audience provocatively, often through simple poses and well-timed synchronous movement, as well as often raising an eyebrow and smirking. The insouciance is almost palpable.

The effect of this is, on the whole, positive: this isn’t the kind of piece where you can sit back and relax. Director Josh Roche has created a charged and compelling environment in which to tell this story, and it does focus your attention. However, it also looks a bit too smug: the line between stimulating and challenging is too fine to call, and actors often fall on the wrong side.

This is only exacerbated by the super-cool music: Tony Boardman and Kieran Lucas provide grimy bass-lines and coursing guitar (as well as some pleasant surprises later), which not so much reinforces as eggs the action along, and it seems to do the same to the performers. Also, for my money, the sound levels are all over the shop: instruments too loud and microphone too flat and flabby (making some narration incomprehensible).

And losing the narration is a big loss: there were times when I had no idea what was going on. Although, to be fair, quite a few of the scenes work from a fascinating premise (which, of course, all derive from the fascinating premise of the whole), but meander out. Too much of the show is unclear: how does the drug work? What does it actually do? A major plot point concerns whether people who were men (but are now women) can have children – but since it seems, no matter the external genitalia, that women still have ovaries, why not?

Questions like this aren’t answered; or, if they are, it isn’t clear. There are quite a few times where this doesn’t matter – the general premise is engaging enough, and fine detail is irrelevant in the context of a self-help group (which features some of the funniest lines), but the central plot, the main meat of the story, feels too confusing. It ends on a rather wonderful note (including a nice device referencing an earlier plot point), but it isn’t quite enough.

The same, unfortunately, can be said of the acting: Edward Davis is fast becoming one of Fat Git’s strongest and most versatile performers, and Joe Boylan, Isobel Rogers and Saskia Marland all do well with a host of characters, but lead Shubham Saraf may look the part, but needs to enunciate better: I didn’t hear half of his lines, and it really threw me out of the piece.

As before, Fat Git are making their mark: their shows are always inventive and fascinating, but they still have a tendency to overstretch themselves. This could be brilliant, with more time spent on some practicals about this drug (which would even have suited the provactive, confrontational style) and a clearer, more defined script for the main plotline, but it falls just shy. A shame – I really wanted to love this, but only liked it.

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