Gallow humour, hedonistic horror, a homage to the traumas impacting refugees are not three elements you would traditionally mix together, but in Buggy Baby, these three distinct styles blend perfectly to create a warped, slightly terrifying but utterly brilliant, theatrical experience.
Directed by the talented Ned Bennett who has already won acclaimed awards for his previous production, Pomona and written by Josh Azouz, already famous at the Yard Theatre for his brilliant production, The Mikvah Project.
Suspended on the wall is a wardrobe door reminiscent of the grand old piece from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, opens wide and a spotlight shines on a man and woman stood in its archway. An ominous voice from above explains how five people left Africa, however, only Nur, her baby Aya, who is presumably born during their journey, and their deranged but doting companion, Jaden make it to the East End.
Diagonal to the wardrobe is a proleptic sign, ‘in case of emergency’ with an axe hung below it.
‘You remind me of the babe’
‘Babe with the power.’
‘Power of Voodoo.’
Suddenly, strobe lighting intermittently flashes across the room; sporadically illuminating Nur and Jaden darting across the stage.
I mean not all university students will recognise these iconic lyrics. However, anyone who remembers the late eighties / early 90s, or loves horror musical theatre, or David Bowie, would have had to stop themselves from bursting into song. Bellowing out the lyrics to Magic Dance, from the film Labyrinth; which interestingly also has a baby at the centre of its story.
Due to the production starting with this number and creating the surreal atmosphere reminiscent of Pans Labyrinth, I knew that Bennet and Azouz’s reputations of creating the weird and fantastic were clearly going to be a feature of the night’s production.
Set in the room occupied by the three characters the journey down the rabbit hole is at first subtle. However, progressively, all things descend into mania and chaos. The balance and line between real and fantastical, naturalistic and surreal are warped. In a single scene the audience will witness bazooka wielding rabbits, attack Jaden in one of his drug-induced trances, and then Aya playing with bubbles and rubber ducks in the bath.
Beneath the black humour and Jaden’s troubling demonic rabbit hallucinations, both of which are excellently executed; there is a deeper plot. Throughout the play, hints of Nur and Jaden’s past lives, migration to England and their experiences with the world beyond their room in the East End are sprinkled into the conversation. These references to poverty, lack of networks, and Jaden’s remedial English language skills inadvertently reveal the very real and harsh anxieties that refugees face when they come to the UK.
The themes of conflicting identity, confusion of time and place and twisted symbolism would make many reminiscent of The Birthday Party.
The acting skills of the cast are top notch.
Noof McEwan as Jaden is not only disturbing, particularly during the scenes in which he is convinced baby Aya is his dead wife, all I say is it all goes a bit Lolita with Jaden as the Donny Darko of babysitters. However, he is also a sympathetic and funny character. In a distorted way, he is the Mad Hatter.
Hoda Bentaher as Nur is the tragic, and yet courageous, single mother. The pain she feels in her struggle seems completely real. She brings a grounded presence to this otherworldly journey.
The star of the show is without question Jasmine Jones as Aya. Although only being 8 months old, Aya provides several fourth wall commentaries and is able to communicate normally with her mum. Initially, I was concerned her strong East London voice and take no sh*t attitude would become a strained gimmick and be reminiscent of a bad Stewie Griffin. However, I was proven completely wrong; turns out a woman in a giant nappy can be powerful as well as slapstick.
Tom Clegg and Abrahim Jarman support the cast as the Bazookatoting, psychotic and homicidal imaginary rabbits.
My only ‘criticism’, and it is a minor one, is the punch, well lack of, in the final scene. The tension and suspense boil over into a carnivalesque collision of wills. And then, all of sudden, all seems bizarrely well. This is slightly jarring with the style of the rest of the play. Nevertheless, this is a minor blip.
Buggy Baby is raw, savage, beautiful and challenging. In this Clockwork Orange nursery, the audience is both baffled and amazed.
It will be showing at The Yard Theatre until the 31st March, I cannot recommend this comedy of menace enough (https://theyardtheatre.co.uk/theatre/events/buggy-baby/