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Review: They Built It. No One Came @ Crucible Studio, Sheffield

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After a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Fledgling Theatre Company brought their latest stage play, They Built It. No One Came, to the Crucible Studio in Sheffield as part of their UK tour.

The play is adapted from an article in the New York Times, which details the lives of two gay men who attempted to build a convent based on 18th Century agricultural practice – and are still awaiting their first member.

From the offset, their motivations are unclear: every attempt to explain their ideology is confused by academic jargon and fabricated –isms, parodying the self-help philosophy they aspire to. The synopsis provided for the play is equally vague, but this blankness works to its advantage, making what follows a buoyant and hilarious surprise.  

After the premise of the play is established, the pair gains a new member. A fresh-faced and anxiety-ridden student – clad in an orange t-shirt reading ‘never give up’ –  observes their practices for university credits, but, after their utopia begins to be invaded, events take a darker turn. 

There are obvious comparisons we can make between the play and Waiting for Godot, with its sparse set, existential pontificating, and the entangled relationship between the two main protagonists. Yet Alexander and Tobias, with the aid of Bennie, inject far more optimism and fun.

Captain Fantastic, the 2016 film starring Viggo Mortensen, feels like another key touchstone. It tells the story of a father who, after isolating his children in the wilderness for a more liberal education, faces the reality of integrating them into society. Clearly, both share thematic similarities; yet the film’s arc relies heavily on Mortensen’s sensitive performance, whereas this play foregrounds the actors’ wacky and goofy comedy.

Mostly, the writing here is excellent: Alexander and Tobias wield the language with electrifying wit. But what feels most inventive is the play’s physical comedy, rather than its intelligent musings. The actors leap and bound across the stage like hyperactive puppies.

Also, the set is manipulated brilliantly, managing to play with height, space, and depth with minimal props. Plain sheets of white paper stand in for doves, as the protagonists fly about the stage, ruffling their folds like wings. It’s remarkably effective –  I don’t think I’ve ever been as transfixed by a side of A4.

Undoubtedly, the narrative arc itself is flawed. The writers take a little too much artistic licence in adapting the original source material – an aside about gay hate crime is foregrounded, yet feels unnecessary, and the newcomer’s battle with anxiety is wholly misjudged. However, for the most part, they manage to streamline a relatively complex story into a succinct one-hour performance.

They Built It. No One Came was performed at the Crucible Studio just one day after the Manchester attacks. Patrick Holt gave a short tribute to the victims, emphasising that, above all, this is a play concerned with the value of community.

With a great sense of fun and a slice of subversion, They Built It. No One Came is a tragicomedy that left me feeling refreshed, satisfied, and a little less alone.

To see Fledgling Theatre Company perform on their UK tour, visit their website, here: http://www.fledglingtheatre.com




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