Wednesday, 25 September 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) - Northern Stage, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

Unexploded Ordnances by Split Britches was devised 3 years ago by Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw. Their initial aim was to blend conversation and performance to open up an intergenerational discussion about the issues of our time such as ageing and anxiety. This dialogue is framed against the backdrop of a Dr Strangelove inspired, Cold War, ‘Doomsday’ scenario. 

The show opens with the General (Shaw) explaining to the President (Weaver) that a nuclear attack has been ordered and initiated against USSR targets and a timer for 59 minutes is set on stage to countdown to its impact (i.e. the end of the performance). Weaver then turns to the audience and asks those who were alive during the Korean War to stand up; 2 people rise. She then repeats the question but this time about the Vietnam War and a further 12 stand. Of these audience members, 8 are then pulled out to form the “Council of Elders” and they join Weaver sitting around the tables, arranged in the hexagonal style of the 1964 movie’s War Room. Instead of ‘War Room’ however, it is called the Situation Room, to invite all manner of conversation topics amongst its participants. The on-going theme throughout the discussion is the metaphor of unexploded ordnances or buried/hidden bombs primed to explode. Initially Weaver uses it to question the ‘Elders'’ concerns, what do they feel is the biggest threat to themselves or society. She welcomes anything, personal or political. Subjects ranged from Climate Change to loneliness, but the underlying themes were fear of the unknown in the future, powerlessness and therefore guilt for leaving the world in such a position. It then moved to considering unexploded ordnances as unexplored desires, unknown entities in our life that can be hugely powerful. Somewhat more optimistically, the final round of discussion saw the participants reading out previous audience members’ unexplored desires with the phrase “we could” before them, in order to evoke a feeling of positivity and belief in the possibility of endless chances.

The show is both genius and brave in the fact that it places itself so entirely at the mercy of audience participation. It makes it infinitely more thought-provoking because the ideas are being put forward by fellow audience members and concern their real, everyday lives. Weaver steers and leads the conversation expertly, meaning every confession, whether universal or unique to the individual, is relatable to the audience in some manner and remains relevant to the narrative of the show. Weaver successfully draws the participants on stage out of their shells and it results in a really interesting conversation which all members of modern society could benefit from hearing.

It must be said however, though the discussion itself was fascinating it was rather regularly interrupted by moments of intended comic relief, which to me felt forced under the circumstances. In the post-performance Q&A, Weaver and Shaw explained that they usually stick to more comedic roles and material. Their chemistry is undeniable after working together for 43 years and in another situation the pair would be comedy gold. Sadly, in this instance songs such as “Sixty Minute Man” and the running gag where the General jumped into action every time someone said “generally” simply interrupted the atmosphere and flow of conversation one too many times. Additionally, Weaver rolling around on the tables to John Lennon’s “I’m So Tired” to represent her political apathy was confusing and jarring at best. Ultimately, the comedic relief could have been better placed which would have increased its impact and made me appreciate it more.

Weaver and Shaw carry the serious topics with ease and the performance is a fun way to increase visibility of older theatre performers and the problems faced by the elderly in society. Whether the show needed quite so many elements to effectively communicate the subject of the conversation is questionable. What is an undeniably important and provocative dialogue, was fighting for visibility amongst the Dr Strangelove inspired, Cold War storyline and Weaver and Shaw’s comedy duet. All three are intriguing concepts for a piece in their own right but they clouded the true moral of the discussion.

Overall, UXO presents an important conversation that we should all hear and be a part of. At the heart of the show is an interesting concept that has lots of potential, with some revision of the execution it could be truly ground-breaking.

Reviewer - Rhiannon Walls
on - 24/9/19

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