Review: Survival Strategies

Seán O'Neill 15 October 2020
Image credit: ADC Theatre

Hold on. They’re still doing shows? Musical shows? Musical comedy shows?!

That’s right. Seemingly against all odds, Katie Duggan (writer) and Georgia Rawlins (composer, keys) have delivered their Fringe baby, ‘Survival Strategies’, to the ADC stage. After genuinely fearing for the fate of Cambridge theatre (in all its madness), this makes me rather happy. This company has had to adapt to a myriad of staging restrictions and rehearsal difficulties, on top of the usual stresses of a week one production. Thankfully, the result provides the warmest of wacky welcomes back to the ADC’s loving embrace.

So what’s it like? Well, ‘Survival Strategies’ is WACKY. It’s zany, crazy, off the wall, mental, and downright kooky. From the writing (there’s a ballet-dancing ‘dream’(?) sequence where a character chases a box of gummy sweets) and the performances, to the costume and the props, the show emanates chaotic energy. The actors have been directed (by the strange power of Dixie McDevitt) to embrace the realm of cartoon animation. The cast constantly dance and gesture (outside of musical numbers) with fantastic energy and expression, their entire bodies contorted into gesticulating comic mannequins. In line delivery too, everything is exaggerated, ironic, farcical, and exhaustingly theatrical. This pure balletic energy (special credit must go to Maria Telnikoff) – from the very opening of the performance – was clearly a conscious and tirelessly perfected choice for the fundamental tone of the show and, for better and worse, struck me as one of ‘Survival Strategies’ defining traits. Overall, the cast is cohesive and exuberantly hardworking in their commitment to this particular tone, and they deserve serious credit for the physical and vocal efforts displayed.

That said, this strategy inevitably risks tiring-out an audience or losing a sense of contrast or nuance. I felt that a happier marriage between the understated or naturalistic and the exaggerated or clowning aspects of the show could have made more of the jokes on offer. My loudest laughs came when actors delivered jokes in smaller, quieter ways, throwing into relief the larger buffoonery. More of this sort of delivery could enhance – and likely will, as the show continues to be refined in performance – the enthusiastic fun of Duggan’s writing.

Rawlins provides a shimmering, Stephen-Schwartzy score, perfectly suited to deliver musical impact with the wonderful (though likely pared-down) band she’s had to work with (Jemma Starling on keys, Sam Rawlins on drums and Tanuj Suri on bass). Often catchy, usually interesting, and always enlivening, it’s a score of great variety and ambitious vocal harmony which consistently animates the action, deftly pulled off by a cast of seasoned singers. I particularly enjoyed Vicky Chiu’s solo number – a classic jazzy show-stopper – and the closing ensemble piece, both striking me as impressively polished and showcasing the proficiency of the cast and the effective melding of a wide range of voices.

In sum, ‘Survival Strategies’ is a treat – or it would be, if there wasn’t a pandemic on. As things stand, it’s a banquet of theatrical fun which could go even further with the introduction of quieter shades. To the company behind this show – thank you for welcoming us back with such weirdness. I can think of few better things to come home to.

3.5 stars