Baaba’s Footsteps | Vault Festival

A Japanese woman confronts her past to find her present. 

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Yu, 39, has just been fired from her high flying job as a TV producer in Tokyo, past over for the man she was having an affair with, who subsequently dumped her.

Finding herself at a crossroads that the world around her assumes is signposted ‘marriage’ Yu feels powerless and frustrated.

In the midst of her discouragement, her mother gives Yu her great-granddaughter Takako’s diary. The aged pages reveal a world of struggle amid love and hope.

Takako was a ‘picture bride’, one many young Japanese women who sailed to a new world to marry a man who they had only ever seen a picture. They hoped for a better life, but often found hardship, loneliness and racism.

Invigorated by her great-grandmother’s journey into the unknown, Yu packs her bags and heads to San Francisco where she hopes to find herself, if not a man.

Yu and Takako’s (who became known as Gloria during America’s darker times in an attempt to disguise her otherness) stories oscillate nicely until they work themselves into an intertwining, intense climax.

Baaba’s Footsteps is a small play with big themes. It is an understated comment on racism, identify and feminism.

Takako’s experiences in America during World War II, when Japanese people were incarcerated as the enemy, tie in neatly with the reality of Trump’s America. The script wears its themes lightly when we’re following Yu, but treats Takako’s experience with greater solemnity.

British-Japanese writer Susan is more assured with Takako’s story, perhaps the distance allowing her the objectivity we so often give history when the failings of our own time are less clear.

The production is creatively staged in Vault’s cramped studio and assuredly acted – a fact that is even more remarkable when the cast reveal they had only eight days of rehearsals.

A welcome addition to the packed Vault Festival timetable.

 

Theatre Review: The Cement Garden, The Vaults

George MacKay as Jack and Ruby Bentall as Julie

George MacKay as Jack and Ruby Bentall as Julie

 The Vault Festival is an eclectic six-week programme of arts and entertainment at the underground arts centre, Vaults, in the bowels of Waterloo.

This year’s flagship productions are an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, and this, Ian McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, brought to the stage for the first time.

The Cement Garden is a coming of age tale with a dark heart, set in the stifling heat of the summer of 1976. On the cusp of 15, Jack is the second of four children with an inappropriately rampant crush on his beautiful older sister, Julie. The intensity between the pair is compounded when first their father, then their mother dies and, in a bid to avoid foster care, they bury her in a block of cement in the cellar. As you do.

The two of them are left alone to play screwed-up-families with their younger sister Sue (Georgia Clarke-Day) and five-year-old brother Tom. Unrestrained by adults and society’s rules, Jack and Julie start to inhabit their new roles as “mum and dad” a little too well over the long summer holiday.

Young Tom is represented by a manky rag doll manipulated and voiced by David Annen. At first this seemed like an unnecessary affectation, the sort of off-beat idea that can blight more experimental theatre. But it worked well and the doll soon and seamlessly become part of the family. Less distracting than a child actor’s presence would have been, you believed in Tom’s innocence and his confusion as his world crumbled.

The Vault’s Library space could have been built to stage a play as disturbing and claustrophobic as The Cement Garden. The unusual two storey space under Waterloo’s train tracks is certainly made good use of, even if the resulting set is more imaginative and interesting than practical. Perched on wooden benches in the middle of the long ‘stage’, there were several blind spots, but since I spend most of my theatre trips in the gods, behind a pillar or flush up against the stage, I didn’t find this view as much as a problem as some might. Still the unusual set up is a little distracting and the amount of space the actors are required to cover meant some frantic rushing around that was at odds with the languid feel of the original novel.

Talking of the book, knowing the story well does blunt the sharp edges of the play. With McEwan’s taunt writing diluted down to its bare essence, the element of surprise becomes greater. But the young cast are excellent and bring a real feeling of suspense and foreboding. Ruby Bentall as the practical, inscrutable Julie and BAFTA Rising Star nominee George MacKay as Jack are particularly brilliant as the two leads and, while the original tension of the novel has got a little lost in its transition to this dark, expansive underground space, they deliver powerful performances that leave you a little winded as the lights come on.

by Suzanne Elliott