Probe, the interdisciplinary theatre company run by former Rambert dancer Antonia Grove with an ever-changing lineup of collaborators, has been responsible for such brave theatrical experiments as 2011’s May, a story of a self-harming young woman who may or may not be the figment of her social worker’s imagination. Running On Empty takes place in a similarly liminal space, in this case the place and time outside of creation known in Aboriginal mythology as the Dreamtime.
Two characters, danced by Grove and Greig Cooke, appear stranded on an empty stage, surrounded by an airy soundtrack of cave-like drips and drifting harmonica refrains. They appear to be capable of conjuring objects out of thin air – Grove builds Greig a boat with a flick of her hand – but not of leaving. Marooned in a timeless, placeless state, the two unnamed characters recall the trapped individuals found in Beckett’s later work.
Unfortunately for the audience, the similarity ends there. Between them, writer Brad Birch, choreographer Charlie Morrissey and director Joe McInnes summon up an interesting premise and an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere, but the hour-long performance drifts hazily from one scenario to the next without finding a way to engage its audience.
Greig and Grove are fine performers poorly served by the overfamiliar movement material. Anyone who has seen a modern dance piece at any point in the last 20 years will immediately recognise the falls, rolls, counterbalances, and swings around invisible ladders; and most of all the expansive arms. Running On Empty features more expansive arms than any production I recall seeing in the last decade; I spend half my life telling people that contemporary dance isn’t all people pretending to be trees, but the arboreal excess of a piece like this makes me wonder why I bother.
Here and there are glimpses of, if not a narrative, then a character or a relationship worth our interest. A sequence in which the Man and the Woman struggle bodily, pounding and battering against one another as musician Scott Smith sounds a muscular feedback-heavy guitar solo, has a certain visceral authenticity that grabs the attention. Too much of the piece, however, is given over to the wrong kind of meandering.
It’s not, of course, necessary for a theatre piece to “go somewhere” in the strictly teleological sense; countless works of surrealist, absurdist and magic realist theatre get along perfectly well without a beginning, middle or end. It is, however, necessary for such a work to stimulate our imaginations or sympathy, to give us a reason to engage. Running On Empty, to its detriment, does neither.
Probe is a genuinely interesting company that has produced delicate, moving and exciting work elsewhere. This piece is sadly none of those things. Somewhere halfway through the performance a breathless Grove gasps out, “I’m in over my head”; it’s possibly the most striking thing she says in the performance, and for all the wrong reasons.
Soho Theatre, 21 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 3NE
4 – 16 February 2014
Tickets £17.50 (£15 concs)
020 7478 0100