As the audience took seat around the stage, a voiceover explained how to use the equipment, headphones and VR masks, that we would need over the hour-long session. As the voice spoke, we realised that they were not welcoming us to the theatre but, rather, to be the jury to reassess the case of a 13-year-old girl, Ashleigh (Milla Webb), who went missing in the ocean, 23 years ago, in the state of Queensland, Australia. The session will involve the staged interrogatory of Meera, a coral scientist, and us virtually travelling to 1995 to witness her childhood as an eleven-year-old and to dive into the Coral sea as policemen looking for evidence.
The discovery of Meera’s father and Ashleigh’s blood on the boat the girl fell from led to the reopening of the case, in which the main character plays a key role in realising the truth of what seemed an innocent, child-like adventure. Secretly developing a close friendship with Ashleigh, Meera’s imagination is what brings life to a thriller that, while based off a simple story, mesmerises the audience through an exciting, innovative storytelling that the company, Curious Directive, employs to make us realise the beauty of childhood and its capacity to mask tragedy and turn it into a magic fairy-tale.
Benefiting from an intrigued audience, the VR sets were an excellent technique to take us into a beautiful journey into Meera’s (Ava Ryan) vivid bedroom and the colourful solemnity of the Great Barrier Reef. Through ethereal photography effects that evoked the magic of the two girls’ exciting friendship, the breathing sound effects that turned the pressure of the VR masks into that of diving masks and the 360º vision that our spinning chairs allowed, one really felt transported back to 1995. However, such magic abruptly vanished every time we returned to the much more realistic setting of the adult Meera (Georgina Strawson), which I was frankly grateful to as it allowed the eye to rest, watching a much gently-lit setting after the long VR scenes.
As the single actor on stage, Strawson skilfully interacted with the voice over that interrogated her past. Although initially rejecting and denying the information provided by the police, Meera slowly confronts the severity of what her imagination made her believe through the revival of her childhood. One of the highlights of the play was the moment where she explained the beginning of her friendship with Ashleigh, where Strawson brilliantly managed to transport the audience back to her childhood’s adventure through her monologue, passionately bringing her memories alive with her words only.
The staged part of the play let us witness Meera’s realisation of the unreality of her childhood beliefs, similar to how the colourful coral of 1995 had turned into a white seabed that now acted as stage. Although not being the central issue in the play, the environmental importance of the Great Barrier Reef’s bleaching in the present day could not be left out of a coral-based story. In fact, it serves as a symbol of the transition to adulthood and the magic that is left behind as we grow up.
The oscillation between virtual reality and simply-staged performance was exciting and truly engaged the audience in a much more interactive activity than such of traditional theatre. Curious Directive mastered evoking the contrast between dream-like, childhood innocence and the harsh realisation of adulthood.
Frogman played at Theatre Royal Norwich from 24th to 28th April.