Ribs tells the story of a group of Russian youngsters and their discovery of prohibited American music in the 50s. The show flits between narrative and concert-style performance, and profits from a careful use of staging to distinguish diegetic spaces. Remarkably, Ribs combines soul-searching discussions of freedom, politics and juvenile ambition, with simple enjoyment of well executed musical performance.
One of Ribs’ most compelling aspects is its intelligent character development. The manner of performance, and choice of song and costume complement each other to highlight the piece’s thematic undercurrents. On the one hand, the revolution-obsessed Amelia Hill’s red dress, red lipstick and red hair epitomise the crazed enthusiasm fuelling soviet Russia. On the other, the white-collared, well-dressed conservative performance of Grainne Dromoogle, accompanied by a skilfully played flute, come together to create a sense of the fears and concerns facing the unbridled energy of the 50s Beat culture.
The decision to develop the play through scenes of devised improvisation simultaneously impedes and enhances the show’s force. Conversation is remarkably natural and bears all the signs of liberation from a set script, and once the narrative has found its footing, this freedom fits brilliantly with the characters’ rebellious reaction to societal restraints. Yet, in scenes with more than two characters, we are reminded of the benefits of having a script to fall back on. In the opening scene for example, a child-like excitement and adrenaline-fuelled nervousness comes across in the free-flowing group interaction that does not feel natural to the setting. It seems as if the lack of a script prevents the actors from masking the inevitable pre-performance hype, which translates into an unnatural on-stage hyperactivity.
Ribs offers a diverse experience for its audience. This is again both a blessing and a curse. Depending on what you want from this show, the gig-theatre genre can both deliver and disappoint. The blending of audience-oriented concert with narratively isolated performance has the potential to create something bigger and more interesting than either on their own, but it can also engender a fatal lack of commitment to both modes of performance. Fortunately, Ribs manages to achieve the former most of the time, yet one cannot help feeling that what is meant to be a dramatically tragic ending is not quite as dramatic or tragic as it could be had the concert and narrative modes been better intertwined.
That being said, the show does genuinely entertain. The benefit of devised improvisation becomes undeniable in light of the shows organic and uncontrived moments of humour, and the band’s performance provided a consistently impressive and gripping musical foundation. This piece’s ambition, originality and intriguing background amount to persuasive intellectual reasons to buy a ticket, and this is to totally leave out the undoubtedly simple enjoyment factor.