“Dumbstruck”

at Zoo, Tuesday 13th August 2013

*Originally written for Culture Wars*

Whales, pirate radio, God, sound waves and political protest all appear in Fine Chisel’s Dumbstruck. Contemplating communication and the way in which we process ideas, this is a messy, inventive and original show which speaks to heart and head simultaneously. And though it doesn’t feel quite finished, there’s an honesty and warmth of storytelling that make it a fascinating piece.

The show, devised by the company, focusses on Ted, a scientist working alone in a hut monitoring sounds omitted from the ocean. Whale sounds, specifically. One day, he comes across a whale with a 52 Hertz song – an unprecedented frequency – and begins to start talking to it. Alongside these monologues, we also see how he helped set up a student-run pirate radio station when he lectured at a university and watch flashbacks to his childhood discussions with his vicar uncle. All of them are, fundamentally, about one party talking to another, whether that be God, the radical young left or a lone whale.

Some believe that finding out how things work takes away their beauty, but when Robin McLoughlin discusses the science behind his monitoring of the whale and the way these huge mammals communicate with each other, the whole thing seems all the more perfect. The small fact, for example, that whale song can travel through the ocean for an hour before dissipating, is mind-boggling and contains within it a strange hopefulness.

Songs and music punctuate the piece, taking on the dual role of evoking a scene and acting as respite, as when we watch a recording of a sixties rock ‘n’ roll band in the studio. The tuba becomes the noise of ‘Fifty-Two’ and a scratched wooden box is the sea. Meanwhile, scenes shift from the claustrophobic bunker to the funky radio station by turning over a table or wheeling round a bookcase.

Dumbstruck is a show of incredible charm and is highly intelligent without shouting about it. Pulling together public and private, intellectual and emotional, massive and intimate, its performers present their story with a lightness of touch in a demonstration of the best way to communicate. There are a few loose ends and the show could go deeper in some places, but it’s nonetheless an incredibly human piece of storytelling. It teaches us that, by “turning something that’s made to listen into something that can speak”, more of us can have a voice and express ourselves in simpler, more effective ways.

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