Contrary to my usual seasonal routine of preparing myself for summer around this time of year, Nelson is collectively donning increasingly thick jumpers and kicking piles of autumnal coloured leaves. As such, it was quite strange to enter Theatre Royal and be immersed in the impression of a dusty, heavy, sweltering Spanish summer. Red Leap's physical piece "Dust Pilgrim" takes a story of a young girl named Panuelo (apparently Spanish for "handkerchief", the significance of which is lost on me), a young girl who discovers a terrible secret and runs away from her cruel and controlling mother, out into the desert.
The story, then, is quite a blank canvas. The emphasis of the piece is undoubtedly the physicality. Ella Becroft plays Panuero, while Alison Bruce and Thomas Eason perform as a range of other characters, including her parents, circus performers, and what I can only assume were comical castle-dwellers dressed in blue-lined phantom like costumes with a hole for a face. I would guess that is a product of deliberately creating a threadbare story in order to build on it with creativity designed to provoke emotion rather than thought, so a lot rests on the performers. Sure enough, you can see the skill in their physicality. Becroft comes across as anxious yet determined, Bruce (primarily performing as her mother) has a wonderfully sassy villainess quality heightened by her flamenco-influenced movement. These qualities are constant in their expression and movement, and the lack of variety and subtlety gives a strangely artificial effect to the piece. This would be fine if the story felt big enough, epic enough, to justify it, but at only an hour long and with a relatively uncomplicated story it feels a little bland, especially in comparison to the impressive feats of dance and movement.
Sadly though, their skill does not totally compensate for the lack of substance. I found I was working so hard on trying to figure out what situation Panuelo was in and what her relationship was with those around her, I never felt totally involved in her journey. The escapism is lost among the repetition and strange stage imagery, which has moments of inspiration such as the macabre yet enchanting skeleton puppet found in a suitcase, and others that left me baffled, primarily the scene taking place in the castle, where Bruce and Eason squeak and offer cups of tea and crown our heroine, without ever providing an explanation for their attire as beige condoms. The surreal nature is fascinating, almost dream like, but the story is wrapped up so hurriedly that the mystery feels unrewarding.
The mix in tone can also be a slight distraction. The design maintains a sandy emptiness embodying the Panuelo's isolation and hopelessness, a sense that her life is as inescapable as the drought that weighs heavily upon her and her mother. This is consistent in the lighting, costume and set (featuring a great deal of sand, the orderliness of which is disrupted over the performance similarly to Oliver Chong's "Roots"), until a scene in a travelling circus, which burst with colour. It is also worth mentioning that up until that point, there is almost no dialogue, mostly heavily poetic monologues. That all changes into frantic, salesman-like efficiency and candid writing. The contrast was too strong for the piece and left it feeling unbalanced.
"Dust Pilgrim" would feel at home in a Fringe Festival; it is an easily digestible, hour-long show with talented physical performers, however it feels as though the performance has not met its own sweepingly epic ambitions. The lack of emotion and visual spectacle leaves it rather forgettable. Nevertheless, directors Kate Parker and Julie Nolan leave a clear impression of their style, and I hope to see it in the future, perhaps in a more firmly formed and memorable piece than I saw the other night. Three stars.
Whispers from the crowd:
"It was intriguing, a really innovative way to tell a story"