Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester; Thursday 15th June, 2017
Roughly two or three times a year I’ll spend an entire Saturday lying on the sofa, watching TV as if my life depended on it. These will be the Saturdays where a hangover and a cold/flu mix to turn me into a properly annoying and obnoxiously opinionated twat.
In the agonising gap between Columbo episodes on ITV3 and 5USA, I’ll end up watching some diabolically mad film or other on a channel like TrueMovies or CBS Drama – it’ll be something that I’ve never heard of before, something that I’d never plan to watch, and something that doesn’t really make any sense; but once I’ve put my prejudices aside and stopped being a dick about it, I’ll accept it for being the entertainment that it is and then I’ll probably text a few friends to say: “m8, srsly mad shit on Freeview 74, u shd b wotchin it uno.” That bemused feeling of initially thinking that something is bad but then conceding that it is actually just something different is, in a nutshell, exactly what Bears at Manchester’s Royal Exchange is like.
This play is definitely about bears, but then it is also very much about Kit Kats. The promotional material suggests that Bears is meant to be very serious, but it’s hard not to get hold of the wrong end of the stick and spend the entire hour interpreting it as a dystopian adaptation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
They’re all dressed up in fluffy bear outfits and they do amusing things like brush their teeth and wipe their feet on a door mat – all of which suggests that they’re very friendly bears and that this is some kind of feel-good comedy. But this plotline is one that you just couldn’t make up, though in this case Powder Keg Theatre really did: essentially Mummy Bear and Daddy Bear wake up one morning, they have a very posh sit-down Kit Kat (with knives and forks) but they don’t share it with Baby Bear; but then Baby Bear soon finds another bar of Kit Kat (which presumably is just right), eats it all by himself which makes Mummy Bear and Daddy Bear quite angry, and then they all end up trashing the place before finally going back to sleep.
If that sounds a bit mad, it is. But it’s so completely insane it’s actually ok.
The weirdness isn’t confined to the plot. The same intriguing strangeness is present in the accompanying sound effects. Throughout the performance there is an ever-present whining noise in the background. It’s a sound that’s constant yet not repeating in a rhythmic way, it’s not melodic and it’s not a backing track, in fact it’s not even a sound effect relevant to the performance. It’s like the distant hum of a neighbour mowing their lawn, or perhaps a very large insect buzzing around in the theatre, the pitch rises and falls randomly, it’s just such a strange noise to hear. But it perfectly fits in with the overall weirdness, and the three bears do eventually reveal all about the origins of the strange noise, though that particular twist only serves to increase the sense of bewildering confusion.
This play is exactly like the Saturday afternoon movie that stirs internal responses which you might struggle to understand. It’s difficult to explain what is going on with Bears, in some ways it’s just some stuff that happened in a big room in a big building. Is it a play? There are no spoken words, it is definitely not a dance, is it a mime though? Is it a comedy or is it a tragedy?
Whatever it is, it will probably take your brain into a very weird place where it’s not been before –that alone makes it a resounding success.