FRINGE REVIEW – Belt Up, Outland

By Mark Bolsover

By now a firmly established fringe presence, Belt Up return with their acclaimed show, offering a view of the last days of Lewis Carroll. Charles (/Carroll), an elderly gentleman, takes a final trip and is reunited with Arthur and Muriel, the children who, along with the eponymous Alice, inspired his work.

The official fringe blurb for Outland is somewhat deceptive. It would lead you to believe that an intimate acquaintance with Carroll’s work is a necessity and that the play itself is exclusively concerned with his literary creations. In reality, however, this is far from the case. Outland plays on a moving portrayal of the personal relationships which underpinned Carroll’s works. Whilst Outland shifts abruptly, both in location and tone, between emotional scenes depicting Charles’s visit to Arthur and surreal scenes depicting the world’s and characters of Carroll’s works, from the play’s splenetic opening, with a somewhat over-exaggerated and frantic welcome from the cast, it is the relationships which ground the piece and serve to clarify the narrative and emotional reasons for these shifts.

The play is thus open to the uninitiated as well as to devotees of Carroll. Where extracts from his works feature explicitly, the excellent recitation by the cast serves to provide an interesting reading of the texts from the play’s biographical and emotional context.

Outland runs the risk, characteristic of all works concerned with the lives of authors, of romanticising its central figure and of reducing the works to their biographical context. Indeed, the play offers a very straightforward reading of Carroll’s relationship to the children who ‘inspired’ his work, without bringing these relationships themselves into question. However, Dominic Allen is a deft and effective writer and manages to negotiate the potential pitfalls well and the play never over-sentimentalises Carroll. Allen and his co-stars, Jethro Compton and Serena Manteghi, all give powerful and accomplished performances, handling the shifts between their numerous biographical and literary roles well. Belt Up maintain their signature set-up, the audience seated on couches and scatter cushions arrayed around a small, intimate and immersive performance space whilst the performance incorporates elements of audience participation. Whilst this is always condemned to be hit and miss, the cast respond excellently to the mixed reactions which it elicits. Outland skirts potential sentimentalism to create an incredibly well written and genuinely effective and moving meditation on the nature of artistic inspiration and the necessity of art to life.

2-27 Aug at 21:05 (1hr15) at C Nova. More details on the Edinburgh Fringe website

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