Review: “The Great Escape”

“They were queuing up, all seven, in the canteen of their retirement home when they decided to flee.”

Here’s how you know Adhok’s The Great Escape is an excellent piece of street theatre: As the performers bundled into a car and made their escape through the audience, accompanied by whoops and cheers, a strange thing happened. The crowd didn’t disperse. Instead they stood, as if transfixed by what they had just seen. I was one of them. The seven performers had left the street on which they had just performed, but the questions the show had provoked stayed. What does it mean to grow old? Why does society place old people into homes, especially against their will? And why don’t people spend more time talking to each other, especially when so many know what it is to feel lonely?

The performance begins with the actors queueing in line, trays of food and drink in hand, enveloped by the audience. The music matches their sedate pace until they pause, look around and attempt to flee the nursing home they are in. The story and the setting are perfectly matched, the narrowness of Humber Street squeezing the crowd together and creating the sense of claustrophobia that the characters feel in the nursing home. Eventually, spotting a gap in the audience, they sprint off into the distance. What follows is an introduction to the previously silent characters who promote their skills to those assembled. Guy Delamarche tells the audience that he has “seventy-six years of experience” whilst Francoise Loreau highlights her, and I am quoting here, “big boobs”. It quickly becomes clear that it is not their skills that they are promoting, but their utility. The message is clear: the audience may view them as old and, by inference in today’s society, useless, but they don’t see themselves in that way; they still have much to offer.

The Great Escape is an interactive performance for all ages. What struck me as the performance made its way around Hull’s marina was the cross section of society that was following them; children in pushchairs were giggling at the physicality of the performances; a group of teenagers blessed the performance as ‘proper good’, a sentiment that an elderly couple heartily endorsed and a young family were fully engrossed in the performance. The cast didn’t just talk to the audience, but invited them to be a part of it, at one point walking arm in arm with them and having one to one conversations with individual members. They shared stories from their past, recalling former glories, raucous parties and memories that brought smiles to their faces.

The ending was wonderfully anarchic. Having escaped the nursing home, they had no desire to return and defiantly asserted their value to all assembled (and all assembled will surely never forget how forceful Christiane Colard was). There were two moments at the end that were deliberately shocking, and I think the reason they were included was to shine a light back on the audience. How can anything the actors say or do be as shocking as the treatment of the elderly in so many societies? What does it say about our society that seeing elderly flesh elicits greater gasps from the audience than the erasure of older generations from public view? I don’t know whether she intended to, but director Doriane Moretus has created a piece of art that doubles as a stinging critique of consumer capitalism that promotes the idea that the word “old” is synonymous with the word “obsolete”. The Great Escape is nothing less than a celebration of humanity and the power of personal interaction.

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