We Can Time Travel - Dom Coyote
Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. 21.11.18.
Time travel doesn't appear in theatre very often. There's something about the ridiculously sci-fi nature of the thing that doesn't sit well on stage. So when it does turn up, it's kind of not the point - it stands for something else; a gateway to ethical or moral complexities. In Alistair McDowall's Brilliant Adventures, time travel is just another dead-end dream in a world of poverty and neglect. In Ian Kershaw's The Greatest Play in the History of the World, it's a way of talking about and remembering love. In Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors, it's a plot device for the usual Ayckbourn shenanigans in which a comedy dominatrix foils attempted murder ("dazzlingly ingenious", says Michael Billington - fair enough, Mike, fair enough). In Ella Hickson's Oil it's there to give us the grand sweep of history through a familial perspective, and in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child it's used to revisit/butcher our favourite memories from the book, depending on your perspective*.
Dom Coyote's We Can Time Travel continues this noble theatrical tradition of not really being about time travel, despite the declamatory title. Still, time travel is actually a large, functioning part of the plot - Dom does it, and we're invited along for the ride. Dom has come, he tells us, from the future, to tell us his story. His grandfather was a sound recorder, travelling all over the world and sending back tapes - ice cracking, apples slicing, and (strangely, brilliantly) the aurora borealis burning in the sky. When his grandfather dies and the entire sound collection passes to Dom, it's a trigger for a kind of time-travelling, memory-driven, psychological head-spin of a trip down memory lane, into the past and the future.
Discovering a hidden message encoded in the tapes, Dom makes contact with a club of H.G. Wells fans and learns that these messages may be the key to time travel - "get in!", he yells, and why not? Taking his grandfather's advice to live every day as if it were his last, Dom throws himself into his newly-created vortex, appearing and reappearing at random as he becomes unstuck in time (this being the second play to remind me of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five). Along the way, he meets his future daughter and his future self - he sees fascism rise, cities drown, and the sun burn down to a dull-red, diminished ball. He searches desperately for a way home, for a way to change his destiny, but also a way to live and thrive in the here and now.
Like I say, a head-spin. The plot is dense and strange, far too convoluted and metaphorical to carry much meaning. We are entirely uncertain as to whether Dom is truly travelling through time in its most literal, sci-fi sense, or simply crashing through memory and imagination on a tide of insurmountable grief and millennial ennui. This is fine - it's not the point. Once you put the plot to one side and, as we are encouraged, experience the moment right now, the play embraces you.
Photos by Paul Blakemore
This is theatre at its fullest - a constantly-changing mix of song, storytelling, sound and vision. Dom is a warm, welcoming and arresting performer, even if he is dressed like a steampunk hermit with his funky goggles, massive trenchcoat and brilliant mop of hair. His voice is folksy, melodic and deceptive - when we think we've heard it all, he gives us a note that travels out and around with haunting power. His voice (which you can enjoy here) carries the show's emotional punches - when he repeatedly revisits the moments of his grandfather's death, he cries out again and again, his pain expressed as a lyrical wail. When he finds himself lost in the future, it's the desperate repetition of his mantra that draws him (and us) home. Totally at home as the sole performer, Dom has charisma in spades. He also hands out crisps, which is my kind of audience interaction.
Elsewhere, We Can Time Travel is a thing of beauty. Economically staged behind a bank of decks, speakers and cables in Ruth Shepherd's evocatively cluttered design, the space is intimate and inviting. Chris Swain's superb lighting is a prism of desk lamps, focusing and refracting the performance and occasionally bursting out to flood the theatre. Chris Prosho's soundscape is pulsing and electric, and brought to life throughout the play as Dom mixes it live, playing with loops, levels and feedback. The whole show is precisely controlled yet wonderfully messy, making it visually and aurally exciting - a busy, brilliant riff on the time machine; a trip in the TARDIS soundtracked by Nicolas Wending Refn's Drive.
I'm a big fan of shows that don't outstay their welcome, and at only one hour this is a peach of a play. Granted, its plot is probably too light to go the distance, but thankfully there's more than enough eye-boggling and ear-pleasing action to carry our attention. And if the play's overall message - seize the day, as encapsulated by Dom's grandfather - is a little trite, it's delivered with the strength of an anthem. It's impossible not to be carried by the noise of it, by the sorrow and the joy. It's well worth your time.
* Cursed Child is high on the list of Pop Culture Works I Must Not Be Drawn Into Discussing Lest I Have A Brain Aneurysm. Other entrants include Moffat-era Doctor Who, the fucking Reggie Perrin remake, and Coldplay after the first two albums. Top spot is taken by The Last Jedi. God damn it. Let's not go there.