“Let the bear batter you about a bit”
If you go down the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. And if you go down to the Ovalhouse Theatre in South London, you may not get a picnic but you’re sure of a curiously fascinating piece of theatre. The Bear comes from the intriguing mind of Angela Clerkin, based on a short story written by herself and Lee Simpson and in a co-production with Improbable, manages to find the connecting link between film noir murder mystery, tips on how to survive varied bear attacks and assorted musical and dance numbers including a growly blues song and an Irish jig.
It’s a diversely conceived collection of disparate elements yet somehow the throughline is achieved. Clerkin plays herself, or at least a version of herself, a solicitor’s clerk who finds herself swept up into a strange world when she is deployed on a new murder case. When sent to question the accused in his cell below the Old Bailey, he protests his innocence and claims “it wasn’t me, the bear did it”. Unlikely as it seems, Angela soon finds proof that he might actually be telling the truth and as she starts her own covert investigation, uncovers rather more than she could ever have expected.
In Rae Smith’s box-of-tricks set and augmented by a brilliant sound design from Mark Cunningham, an appropriate sense of playfulness predominates in The Bear and nowhere more so than in Guy Dartnell’s energetic portrayal of all the additional characters in the story. From the wisdom-dispensing fur-coat-clad Aunt Gloria, through any array of drunken bystanders, to a fiercely wrestling bear, his quicksilver changes spark and crackle off of the fixed point that is Clerkin and together, they skip lightly from genre to genre with a wonderfully gentle humour.
The ephemeral nature of the piece may frustrate some who crave straightforward narrative clarity, but the joys contained within The Bear come from the very unpredictability of the journey and the huge intelligence that underlie these detours. And as it prowls around its vividly drawn path, coming closer to an understanding of just what the bear is and what it means to all of us, it has a slyly beguiling quality that is really rather enchanting.