Urchin | Encyclopedia of AnimalsLeft - Christopher Brown. Cover - (l-r) David Tredinnick (on screen), Christopher Brown & Merfyn Owen. Photos - Andrew Wuttke

Urchin is an imaginative debut by Encyclopedia of Animals, a new hybrid theatre crew comprising talented writer's, actors, designers, filmmakers and choreographers. It's the fruit of a long standing collaboration between Writer and Director's Christopher Brown and Rhian Hinkley and inflatable designer Mark Cuthbertson.

A breathtaking opening scene reveals an ungodly gale howling fiercely through an open door, it's a hostile world outside. Inside, we witness two men hasten together to close the door. The paradox. They float across stage in extreme slow motion. As they fasten the door, their bodies relax, they soften, they are safe. For a moment a strange wind song murmurs beyond the door.

As the lights go up, we observe the two men setting about their daily business, it seems like an ordinary world, a warehouse stacked with boxes of products. We learn they are partners, small-time entrepreneurs, Martin (David Tredinnick) and Damien (Christopher Brown) searching for a brilliant new product for their business, something people really need and want.

This slow-mo opener establishes an awry mood. Here, all is not what it seems. As the men speculate back and forth about the marketplace, we (almost) get a feeling that both these men have reached an impasse; an impasse perhaps much deeper than simply finding a suitable new product to sell.

Tredinnick is brilliant as the stoic partner slowly leafing through a merchandise catalogue pitching possible products at his partner, Brown is a little less convincing as the impulsive, intuitive offsider, sometimes dropping the ball as he wildly draws up flow-charts of possibility onto blank paper. This scene is a crucial one that falls short, detracting from the crucial foreshadowing it might truly convey for the mundane to magical story about to unfold.

With their new product challenge set, Martin and Damien employ a semi-retired motivational speaker named Warren, played with aplomb by Merfyn Owen, to promote and market their new inflatable. Enter the urchin. It comes in the form of an easy to use, back-pack device complete with an instruction manual that you can inflate almost anywhere.

It's a comical scene as Tredinnick, Brown and Owen, pace the stage as they unpack their inflatable urchin, contemplating it's mystery for the very first time. They circle and ponder the device much as a novice might contemplate a new-age device like a float tank for the first time. Warren waxes lyrical about it, conjuring up the best he can offer by way of spin. He charms the business duo. We discover that this immersion device acts as a vaccine against fear.

Then the magic (almost) happens. However, there are too many things left untapped by the script. An absence of back story prevents the urchin inflatable from gaining the full metaphorical merit it deserves. We never really understand it's development, why it's a vaccine. Was it truly a sea urchin that inspired the device? And if so why, was it for it's perfect symmetry, for it's genetic makeup, for it's innate defence system or was it because for the human imagination pausing to collect an urchin shell washed up along a shoreline can simply be a strange and wonderful moment of contemplation, reflection and meditation? As a result when the urchin is unpacked we are confounded more than astonished, we need to suspend too much disbelief.

One by one, each of the characters inhabits and road tests the inflatable. Whilst inside the urchin each character confronts their deepest thoughts, memories, fears.

For this reviewer it is here that the story loses it's way. Instead of building on the awry sense established at the outset of the play that has almost gained momentum, the direction diverts us elsewhere. The urchin darkens in the foreground. No sooner are we (almost) convinced of it's magic and our imagination (almost) engaged deep inside the urchin too, than our attentions are whisked far away, and urchin illusion is scattered.

Our focus is redirected to a series of extreme screen projections featuring each of the three characters on the backdrop of cardboard cartons. Ostensibly these short films are representations of their innermost images, the altered states that transpire whilst inside the urchin device. However, for this reviewer it is a case of screen projections being used superficially and inappropriately; for show rather than effect.

While the films are quite accomplished works in their own right, they seem to sit outside the story, beyond the urchin, rather than from deep inside it. In this way the urchin becomes lifeless, inert, emptied of significance, and much of the narrative impulse is lost. Perhaps it would have been more interesting, more satisfying from an audience perspective, if the urchin inflatable held it's ground - front and centre stage - and became a vivid performance space within the performance space where the characters inner worlds played out. 

These inner worlds could be conceived by the crew at EOA a little differently. For example, character delivering tense and mesmerising monologues or breathtaking physical theatre vignettes or poetic dance sequences inside the urchin inflatable in the present space, the here and now. And perhaps sequences of shifting locales and geographies rather than character's psychological states might enable the mood and atmosphere to shift and shimmer, allowing audience imagination a much wider girth.

Urchin is a remarkable debut by Encyclopedia Of Animals, added script development and directorial refinement promises wondrous things to come.

FULL TILT at the Arts Centre and Encyclopaedia of Animals present

Venue: the Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio
Dates: 19 – 29 May, 7.30pm
Tickets: $30 | $25
Bookings: theartscentre.com.au | 1300 182 183 | the Arts Centre Box Office

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