Manchester Theatre Awards

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Dancing Bear (Queer Contact Festival 2018)

Beccy Owen with songs by Jamie Fletcher, Beccy Owen and Ric Neale
Jamie Fletcher, Hannah Tookey and Roxanne Moores
The Palace Theatre, Manchester
06 February 2018 to 07 February 2018

A little thing like being closed for renovation isn’t going to stop the Contact Theatre from producing plays. While the venue is in darkness plays are being based at partner venues across the region. The Palace Theatre, known for hosting blockbusters and middle of the road entertainment, is a surprising participant but is so committed it has become an associate producer of Dancing Bear.

Dancing Bear sets out to achieve a wide range of objectives, some of which seem contradictory.  It is inclusive, while directed at specific audience types, and celebrates but also challenges the perceptions of the audience about faith, sexuality and gender. Jamie Fletcher, who conceived and directs the show, is a Christian and transgender. She has adopted many aspects of spiritual celebration for the play, which has the warm atmosphere of an evangelical church in which all members join in singing, forming part of a band and dancing. It is an inspired approach and ensures that the show does not descend into a variety act. 

In the tradition of church singing there is an obvious stand-out, with a blazing vocal performance from Divna De Campo (Owen Farrow). Considering the popularity of glitzy pop, disco and show tunes among the Gay community, it is surprising that the songs, written by Jamie Fletcher, Beccy Owen and Ric Neale (all of whom form part of the band), are in Gospel or Rock style.

The church employs allegory to communicate, and Beccy Owen’s script follows this approach with a story arc concerning a bear driven from his community for being different and struggling to develop a personality/body with which he/she feels comfortable. In the manner of church patrons, members of the cast step forward to ‘testify’ – telling autobiographical tales of their faith and sexuality.

Choreographer Eleni Edipidi also borrows from the church; rituals such as making the sign of the Cross are reflected in dance moves. Edipidi creates a very wide range of styles, from the hopeless ‘dad dancing’ that opens the show to a tormented solo piece that suggests a character, desperate to get out of his own skin, going so far as to writhe in an agonised spider-crawl across the stage.

Dancing Bear takes a positive approach to the subjects it addresses. The point is made early that the Christian church and the Gay community are alike in offering a place of refuge for people who may feel they are at the margins of society.  The show casts a wide net in trying to involve all members of the audience, to the extent that it sometimes feels like trying to please everyone. The cast sympathise with people bewildered by the ever-growing acronym used to list gender choice, while also suggesting impatiently they should just use Google. Katie Fenwick’s BSL interpretation actually becomes part of the show, with her stage centre, rather than discreetly at the side, and sharing her experiences via another member of the cast.

Ultimately Dancing Bear is too ambitious and unable to bring some of the threads running through the show to a satisfactory conclusion. The autobiographical testimonies seem to run out of steam without clarifying whether the speakers felt faith was a burden or a solace and helped resolve or exacerbated their problems. A debate on the thorny issue of how homosexuality is portrayed in the Bible becomes so cluttered with quotations and claims and counter-claims that it is hard to follow the points being made. The show is so crowded that some of the ‘educational’ aspects have to be covered in the programme.

Dancing Bear feels like a blueprint for an on-going project. It is easy to imagine the show being revived with a different cast making their own testimonies and continuing to address challenging issues in a surprisingly upbeat manner.

Dancing Bear is part of Queer Contact and returns to The Palace on 7th February, 2018. All performances are fully BSL interpreted with audio descriptions.

Reviewer: David Cunningham