Part of the MIFTAS season by the University of Manchester Drama Society this play is all about time travel with a twist
The Surrealist atmosphere of Cloud Avenue begins with the venue itself. With its peculiar smell of wood and its enormous ornamental dream-catchers, the self-proclaimed “creative wellness centre” Wonder Inn felt like a different dimension. Vegan-friendly beverages in hand, we entered the middle-sized white room which served as both stage and auditorium to find a young woman with quirky goggles standing proudly in front of her time machine, a contraption consisting mainly of a large fabric panel and bronze-coloured ornaments. And then the magic happened.
Violet (Anya Ryan) informed us that she’d built the machine to revisit her own past. She wanted to relive her childhood adventures and help her younger self to cope with the issues she’d struggled with, namely the conflict between her love of the wonderful, solitary world of her imagination and her need to form meaningful bonds. The venue certainly did not offer the spatial advantages of a theatre: there was no room for large and impressive props or an elaborate scenery. Yet the brilliant writer, director, and puppet-maker Cara Looij did an amazing job in materializing Violet’s world; I’m itching to see what she could do pull out of her hat in a high-budget production. An ingenious use of a projector, Chinese shadows, and stunning puppets bring her story to life in a way that can only be described as visually stunning. Whether the blurriness of the projected images was intentional or not, it fits in perfectly with one of the play’s main themes: the misguidedness of relying completely on our memories, however vivid and exciting. The vivacity of the construction lies not only on its visual beauty, but also in the clever use of sound, managed by Zoe Kent, whom also created the beautiful original score.
The cast of four doubled as puppeteers, carrying the papier-mâché version of young Violet through India and China and back to her childhood home in Cloud Avenue. Laura Sagar and Bradley Pascall were amazing as Violet’s comical parents, never failing to make us laugh at all the right moments. The two-dimensionality of their characters was not only amusing, but also essential to the comprehension of Violet’s personality. She sees her parents as superficial people who would rather send her to a therapist than try to understand her. The latter, John (Stanley Myers O’Mulloy), is the only person who shows a genuine interest in her. Or rather, he tells us that he does, insisting that he’s happy to be her friend and that he’s concerned about her. However, there is little in his body language to suggest this. In most of their interaction, the actors are seated at a distance from each other, in the awkward, static position of a therapy session. This is certainly realistic, but does nothing to improve the chemistry of two actors who supposedly share a unique connection in their understanding of the world.
Overall, my main concern with this play is that it’s too short. The themes Looij managed to condense in a mere half hour are varied and compelling, but I think their elaboration would have been clearer within a longer narrative. It’s hard to reflect on the nature of reality, the perspective offered experience and the limits of artistic independence when you’re struggling to keep up with the work’s extremely fast pace. Furthermore, I would happily have spent the whole night in Violet’s magical world.
Cloud Avenue is part of the MIFTAS season and is playing at Wonder Inn from the 20th to the 22nd February.