'Running on Empty' review or 'Not dancing but drowning.'

Running on Empty, Brad Birch and company
Soho Theatre, Friday 7th February 2014

‘Running on Empty’ is meant to be a piercing, dance-led meditation on the dislocating nature of death. Unfortunately, it’s nothing of the sort. This is an excessively indulgent piece of theatre; insular, shallow and really quite silly.  

Almost every experimental theatre cliché has been smuggled into this show. Dangling lighbulbs. Sparse dialogue. Pained dance moves. Abstract angst. The lightbulbs form a backdrop for wizened musician, Scott Smith, who plays wistful songs on the guitar but also plays a lot of other instruments, including the harmonica - possibly the most over-used instrument in performance theatre.

Smith is the narrator for our mournful tale. He spends a lot of time saying ‘This is a dream world’ and plucking sadly at his guitar. He plays death-rattle tunes on his harmonica and stares defiantly at the audience, with just the faintest hint of apology about him.  

The dream world which Smith invokes involves a lot of water. The water presumably represents death and this is where our two dancers - Antonia Grove and Greig Cooke – spend most of their time. Following a song which could have been plucked from the film ‘Once’ (but in this instance is accompanied by some seriously excessive arm waving) we are told: ‘She is dreaming and he’s dead’. Brad Birch certainly hasn’t excelled himself with this script. The two dancers then writhe about on a small plank of wood in the middle of the ‘death’ water, begging each other for forgiveness.

There are a few striking dance moves, which say masses more than Birch’s monumentally clunky script (‘I fear fear!’/ ‘I’m just trying to build a boat!’) Grove has perfected the art of hanging whilst standing, stretched out and horizontal, as if she’s about to topple over a cliff. It is one of the few times the show edges onto the emotional precipe, on which this girl is so precariously balanced.

Otherwise, there is a lot of dead dialogue, much of it uttered in the midst of wrenching dance moves. The two dancers spend a lot of time trying not to fall into the water and exchanging banalities; ‘Have you ever made something cry?’ Yes – the dog before he died.’ It reminds me of a game my brother and I played when we were young. We would sit on the bed and pretend the floor was the ocean and dare each other to jump in. So, yes, exactly like the games I played when I was ten.

It’s horrible to be so biting about a show but it upsets me that people might watch this and believe this is what experimental theatre has to offer. Such abstract work requires super sharp directing (Jo McInnes hasn’t taken hold of this piece) and thrashed out content; but this show is really just a series of gaps linked together with very flimsy thread. It is theatre for performer, not for the audience.  

In a strong devised show, you scratch beneath the surface and all sorts of horrors and truths spill out. In this case, Grove pries open her show in a central scene and manages to unearth an otter, an elephant and possibly a dog. All these animals then go on to have some sort of dancing epileptic fit. It’s never a great sign when your show opens out to reveal a very odd day at the zoo. Crackers.