Photos: Stephen Allwright, Design: Kieran Tam

Johnny King and Carine Valarché have indeed produced a strange creature. Lying somewhere between immersive theatre and performance art, MIST: Diazepam offers audiences a night of surreal cabaret performances interspersed with increasingly disturbing glimpses into the psyches of its motley cast. MIST thrusts us into a dystopian future in which we peer into the last bar in town, ‘floating around in an ocean of broken dreams and lonely corners’. This is certainly not a comforting trip to your local pub.

In many ways, this is a difficult show to review. Part of the issue is that there is little discernible narrative (the play is, one soon begins to suspect, cyclical) and at times the characters and context feel frustratingly fragmentary. This is not entirely a criticism. One gets the sense that this is part of the point. As the audience, we play the role of transient observers, stepping through the doors of Mist for the briefest of moments to experience a snapshot of the world within. King and Valarché should be commended for the rich world-building effect they achieve, as key details tantalise from hidden histories beyond those presented on stage.

“King and Valarché should be commended for the rich world-building effect they achieve”

We may begin however, with the more straightforward elements: the production was impressively slick, with excellent use of emotive lighting. As violence seeps into the second half of the play, the stage is plunged into a disturbing primal red, at other times, bright technicolour tones bathe the characters in psychedelic hues. Also fantastic are the various cabaret performances – eerie and powerful, they are a great showcase of the range and depth of talent in Cambridge. Of particular note was the unsettling crooning of Elfine Obscura (Amber Reeves Pigott) and the truly impressive Shadow Dynamo (Sharla Petterson and Auréliane Pierret), whose gymnastic routine is alone worth the price of admission.

The rest of the cast was also impressive. Harry Burke, as the volatile Sidney Diazepam deserves mention for his physical dynamism and superb emotional range, bringing complexity and all-important ambiguity to an otherwise potentially cardboard character. Of the triad of downbeat bar regulars (or semi-permanent, semi-Greek tragic chorus – who knows really…), the monotonous Saliva Simone (Carine Valarché) is a particular standout, providing moments of comedy and horror in equal measure.

Harry Burke as Sydney DiazepamStephen Allwright

Onto then, the juicy bit – after all the hype, the brilliant marketing (kudos to whoever was responsible for that), the mysterious preview etc. etc. – what is the bloody play actually about? This is a question your reviewer has been wrestling with for some time. The notes I dutifully made at the time prove to be as puzzling as the play. A sample: “jenga…wailing dissonance explosions and collapse – a TRAIN?” In the spirit of the shattered, multifaceted nature of the play itself, which divides the stage in two and recombines it, divides audience from performers and merges them together again, your reviewer proposes two analyses.

Analysis A: MIST: Diazepam is a play about confronting the self. We are presented with a series of figures in an amorphous psychic landscape. They are slivers of identities, externalised and projected into odd, unsettling characters. Perhaps the bar regulars are really the Id, Ego and Super-Ego in disguise. Sidney and Viscera Skye (played with convincing realism by Annabel Bolton) engage in a therapeutic ritual, leaving us with half-hints at histories of sexual violence, betrayal and other such light-hearted personal sagas.

“At times, one feels like one is peeling away at the layers of an interminable performative onion”

As the ritual repeats, the smooth mask of performance begins to slip. Violence erupts into the play – the characters threaten to crumble before our eyes. At times, one feels like one is peeling away at the layers of an interminable performative onion. The play however, does not coax tears – instead it teases us to laughter with the provocation of increasingly shocking violence, before whirling its critical eye upon the audience itself. Locked in a dialogic process between performance and reflective observation, the characters struggle to make sense of their purpose in a world in which shadowy hands are pulling at the strings.

The audience is left unsatisfied – where is the actual mist? There is not a wisp of dry ice to be seen. Perhaps the mist is metaphorical. Perhaps we’re all metaphorical…these are the kinds of questions the show offers coyly to the audience.

Analysis B: MIST: Diazepam is a play about…well, let’s just say (and one must be delicate here) that it is a product of the ironic post-modern (dare I say even post-postmodern) times we live in. Disjointed and fickle, with a short attention span and willing to blag its way through, the play is all of us (i.e. Cambridge students), or at least remarkably similar to your reviewer during supervisions. How much are the audience being played? Verdict unclear.

Self-aware, frustrating but also oddly fascinating – MIST: Diazepam is not one to be missed (hold on…). The play is over alas, but surely the performance continues

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