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The Best of Touring Theatre

Chelsea Hotel- Earthfall , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , December-04-13
The Best of Touring Theatre by Chelsea Hotel- Earthfall Earthfall’s use of projected images goes back to the company’s beginnings, a time before the making of film became cheap, simple and ubiquitous. The large screen in “Chelsea Hotel” uses its images sparely but eloquently, as complement to the performers rather than to their belittlement. “It’s an ingredient, not a gimmick” says Earthfall co-founder and joint artistic director Jim Ennis.

No city in Europe has its equivalent to Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel. Emblem of two ages it was built in the era of New York City’s first architectural efflorescence. It made a temporary home, among others, for the rescued survivors from the “Titanic.” A half-century on, its association with a cast of artists and creators was unrivalled, coinciding with the time that New York took centre place on the world’s artistic stage. A soulful piano sounds through a wall. The building and Earthfall’s tribute are haunted with ghosts, not least appropriately for this season that of Dylan Thomas.

“Chelsea Hotel” in the hands of co-directors Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis is not a narrative but a richly threaded impressionist homage. Time shifts are indicated by the cast of four dancers travelling on film in a vintage lift with its double wrought iron concertina gates- the location is Cardiff’s Jacobs Market. Mike Brookes’ design, with collaborators Michael Blackwood Barnes and Julian Castaldi , creates emblematic images- a curlicue-patterned carpet, an elaborate glass chandelier, drips of water on a window pane. A flower-patterned wallpaper is not so far from Shani Rhys James’ obsessive “Rivalry of Flowers”, just a couple of walls’ distance from the stage.

Time’s passing is marked by a decorative ceiling fan, itself emblem of a pre-air-conditioning age. Its speed of motion has been set to fit the rhythm of the music. The musicians, Frank Naughton, Sion Orgon and Felix Otaola, are all on stage with long hypnotic sequences that accompany the dancers. Live drumming produces that authentic crack of impact that escapes percussion when it is simulated.

Aberystwyth’s good-sized stage is loosely furnished with a table, a double bed, and a US cabinet-style fridge. The fridge is unlikely home for a pair of cowboy boots. Shades of Andy Warhol and his “Lonesome Cowboys” film of 1968 hang over Sebastian Langueneur and Alex Marshall Parsons when they engage in a homoerotic duet. It has its counterpart when Ros Haf Brooks and Jessica Haener change onstage into ankle-length long dresses for a duet evoking the building’s pre-Great War era.

“Chelsea Hotel” is rich in suggestion. The lights dim to evoke an Edward Hopper interior. Still pictures make reference to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexual evolution is expressed in a fetishistic encounter with a dominatrix. Large cards with hand-written lyrics are reminiscent of the young Bob Dylan and the film for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. The Chelsea Hotel, much feted in memoir, has its most celebrated place in musical history in Dylan’s “Sara”. Earthfall’s envisioning may be soaked in layered reference but it is not a history book. It is performance, fusing sound, image and movement into a honed seventy minutes.

“Chelsea Hotel” does not exclude loss and pain, or the great gulfs of loneliness between human beings. But it is much more about youth, love, energy, and creativity. When you checked into the Chelsea you did not have debilitated parents nor round-the-clock-demanding children, nor work tyranny, nor climate anxieties nor economic fraying. Above all it exudes hope and optimism. If it was also a refuge for hedonistic solipsism it does not matter. It is at the very least the place that saw the writing of “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, and deserves every tribute.

Earthfall’s “At Swim Two Boys” won itself a performance life of some years. May “Chelsea Hotel” do the same.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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