Last night I finished work a bit earlier than usual and took myself on a theatre date to Brighton Dome. I hadn’t really looked at the description when I’d booked the ticket, so other than remembering the words ‘hip-hop’ and ‘martial arts’, I had no idea what to expect.
I got there to find a large number of children racing around the theatre, and noted the words ‘Ages 6 and up’ on the poster outside the door. This generally means one of two things: it’s more magical than expected, or it’s more patronising. The Five and the Prophecy of Prana was neither, but it was good, and really interestingly done.
I should admit at this point that I’m a total theatre snob. In general, I like physical theatre with a strong Artaudian influence, a good dollop of Stanislavsky, and very little Brecht. I’ve also been a choreography snob ever since I had to pirouette 39 times in a row in a performance of Joseph as a teenager. In other words: I’m a fan of ‘one must suffer for one’s art’.
In ancient times, an evil Emperor has used sorcery to harness the five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water. With the powers of the combined elements at his command he rules with an iron fist for decades, until a group of warriors known as the Guardians of Prana devise a way to defeat the Emperor and split his soul into five parts.
Successful in their plan, each Guardian vows to protect one of the five orbs containing an element of his soul. Every 60 years a new generation of Guardians of Prana is trained to ensure peace and harmony reign.
But eventually one of the Guardians becomes greedy for power. Soo Lin discovers that whoever restores the five elements to one will rule the world. She persuades fellow Guardian Choo Fang to join her and they murder their comrades Ying Pi and Lao Chen, claiming their orbs. Wang Tang realises he is too late to save Ying Pi and Lao Chen but battles Choo Fang and prevents his orb from falling into the hands of evil.
Wang Tang’s antics make him a local hero, until he is embroiled in a scandal which sees him shunned by the villagers. In his misery, he becomes a drunk vagrant, wallowing in sorrow.
In the present day, we meet The Five. Tuggy, Michelle, Maxine, Flinch and Stylouse are all appearing in court, where a judge is about to sentence them for their crimes. An old friend of Wang Tang persuades him to intervene. At first Wang Tang is reluctant, but seeing an inner glow within them he agrees to begin their training.
As time passes they learn discipline and improve their skills. Wang Tang assigns each of The Five with their spirit animal. They are humbled at their newfound skills and become respectful of their teacher. In spite of their progress, Wang Tang continues to drink.
The ultimate goal for the Five is to conquer Soo Lin and restore the elements, for which they will need to draw on all of their training.
I did have to Google that, though. From the performance itself, I understood that there were orbs that somehow gave power, that Soo Lin had them all, and that the Five wanted them back. Again, I think it would have benefitted from writing bits of the story onto the comic book screens. But then I’m quite a wordy person, so maybe that’s just me.
This was undoubtedly the most interesting part of the performance: just how everything blended together. The movement was street dance mixed with martial arts, which worked really well. There were a couple of scenes where the music was pounding, horrendously loud, the beat throbbing through the theatre so you could feel it in your chair, and the actors engaged in vicious battle that was part dance-battle, part outright war. These were wonderful scsenes and I wished there had been more of them.
The set was really interesting, too: three huge white screens hung across the back of the stage, and several white blocks that were brought out between scenes and arranged in different ways to create landscapes. Projected onto these was comic-book-style art, sometimes with appropriate dialogue (“Yaaa!”), sometimes just the art itself. It gave the impression of turning a page every time the stage went dark. A fascinating way of moving between scenes, and not one I’ve seen done before.
The dialogue was boomed on loudspeakers across the auditorium, and it was the one part of the show I really didn’t like. The actors overcompensated for the hugely loud vocals by throwing their arms around and moving their bodies a bit too much at times, making it look a bit more panto than dance theatre. But there wasn’t too much dialogue, so it was alright. In a couple of instances, the dialogue appeared instead as projections on the screens, alongside the comic-book-art, and this worked far better in my opinion. Though I can understand that if it’d been done like that all the way through, it would have felt like a subtitled performance, and perhaps that wasn’t what they were aiming for. One of the best pieces of acting in the show, I thought, was when one character died and another wept over his body, and you could hear the actual actor on the stage making ravaged noises. No amplification needed, beautifully acted. That’s my kind of theatre!
During the interval, the elderly lady who was sitting next to me leaned over and said “The kids love this, don’t they? Of course, it’s their kind of thing, technology and vicious dancing. ‘Manga’, I think they call it.” I smiled quietly to myself, but she had a point. It was very technology-influenced: like something you’d see when scrolling through Tumblr looking for anime pics. Not that I spend too much time on Tumblr, of course.
This was, on the whole, strong, but it took a while to get warmed up. The first half of the show didn’t feel very tight; some of the moves weren’t quite in time, some of the projections on the screen were slightly off when the actors were (presumably) supposed to be moving in time with them. Shortly before the interval, I’d decided I didn’t really like it. But then Frankie Johnson, who plays Stylouse, had an excellent scene which convinced me that I should definitely pay attention to the rest of the show.
After the interval, everyone seemed to be sufficiently warmed up and things became more tightly choreographed, which I liked. Lots of dance-fighting, and a couple of scenes carried excellently by the amazing Michele ‘Paleta’ Rhyner (Soo Lin), a double-jointed gymnast who moves like liquid across the stage.
On the whole, it was good. I wasn’t bowled over by it, but I think I was in a minority there. The audience gave thundering applause at the end, and as I left the theatre I could hear people around me raving about it. Like I said, I’m a theatre snob.
The children in the audience absolutely loved it, and some of them could be seen practising the moves during the interval. I’d say it’s a great family show, especially if your kids are into anime, manga, martial arts, hip hop, street dance, or just unusual theatre.
I’m not sure how I’d rate it – maybe a 5/10. I enjoyed parts of it immensely, but never got completely lost in the storyline; thought a few of the dance scenes were brilliant (Soo Lin), and a couple of bits of acting were amazing (Stylouse), but I’d have liked a bit less dialogue, a bit more storyline explanation, and a slightly tighter choreography in the first act.
I saw the final performance at Brighton Dome, but the show is now on tour around England & Wales; you can see some of their tour dates here.
Photos by Hugh Glendinning.