Sassy, smart, provocative theatre at it's finest, No Show's The Séance is the kind of exquisite, committed work the Melbourne Fringe Festival is all about.
'Initiating artists' Mark Pritchard and Bridget Balodis have already made their name as Melbourne theatre pioneers, with previous work Shotgun Wedding known for it's use of audience involvement to shape the piece. As should be expected from the name of their second piece, The Séance too draws upon the strength of its viewers as participants.
With an appropriately ambiguous premise and no certainty of where the show is located, brief host and producer Bek Berger acts as an amiable interlude on the walk to the show itself. Peppering her banter with facts on North Melbourne's sordid criminal history, it's much like a tour guide warming up the anxious members of a ghost walk. The chatter only serves to heighten the uncertainty that boils around the show and what precisely should be expected.
Once on location, the real magic begins. Diminutive host, performer, and singer extraordinaire Sophie Webb displays an impossible, all-encompassing commitment that's transfixing to watch. Speaking first in the kind of breathy hushed tones and wide-eyed concern that befits the host of a seance, Webb takes her character one step beyond the stereotype and interweaves solemnity and pithy humour in her remarks to the viewers. Ushering her charges into what looks to be a shrine - disorientingly enough, to a girl of her name and features - Webb walks the fine line between fact and fiction with careful precision and presence enough to maintain the illusion. The fiction is undone with a skilled hand, Webb lapsing into a retelling of the 'deceased' celebrity's life. Props are used efficiently to accentuate the mood; the sweetly tinkling music box is at times creepy, at others poignant. Webb handles her props carefully, blending unexpected sounds of items like a mortar and pestle to create her own score as a backdrop to her enchanting voice.
There remain underlying questions, delivered in song and question by Webb, on the nature of Hollywood and its warping affect upon child stars. Debating what drives a star to America's shores and similarly, what tips them over that edge, it's not the words that drive our fixation with the mystery of Hollywood home, it's Webb's wide-eyed obsession and devotion to the magnetism of a name and a picture.
While Webb's probing into what drove the other 'Sophie Webb' to her death can be a jarring change from the facade of the seance, the shift is testament to the two layers of performance. The viewers, too, remain volatile figures, at one moment seance members, then the dead girl's friends come to pay their respects; just as Webb is an ever-shifting creation herself. Sometimes fragile, choked host, at others vehement truth-seeker, and in brief moments broken and haunted ghost, she delivers relentlessly. There is no fear to be had in interacting with this skilled performer despite a hesitation of breaking into an act.
Bitingly humorous and brilliantly executed, the night given wholly to art, viewers involved in a frenzy of ritual reminiscence of celebrity fixation itself, The Séance is a triumph of theatre. Webb is a revelation, with skills in both comedy and pathos, to be marvelled at for years to come, and No Show's team should be noted as pioneers of an intelligent new breed of theatre.
2012 Melbourne Fringe festival
by No Show
Venue: undisclosed (meet on the steps outside North Melbourne Town Hall)
Dates: 3 – 13 Oct, 2012
Times: 7.30pm and 9.00pm