created and performed by Leo Kay
at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 24th May 2011
Immersive theatre is on the up all over the theatre world, no less than at Warwick Arts Centre, where the current season is breaking the boundaries between audience and performer. We are being asked to interact with performers like never before, bringing us closer to the story and delving deep into the human psyche. In It’s Like He’s Knocking, Leo Kay proves there are two ways of engaging an audience: look them in the eye, and get them sozzled.
We are led through the bowels of the Arts Centre, winding up in a smokey dressing room, adorned to resemble a bedsit. Kay sits in a chair, playing an accordion, before proceeding to tell us the story of his past, present and future. Particular emphasis is placed on his father and grandfather, both of whom had extraordinary lives with tragic endings, and Kay uses this to hang on his own reservations, dreams and ambitions. It’s transfixing.
But this is more than just a monologue. It’s Like He’s Knocking is theatre, in every sense of the word. Interspersed among Kay’s speech are moments of sheer spectacle, which is remarkable considering the size of the space. One moment sees a pitch black room being lit by a tiny window to the outside world, illuminating Kay’s face to the tune of man-made sea sounds. In another we watch Kay and his musician, Mestre Carlao, stare each other in the face intently while playing the most extraordinary ritualistic music on accordion and tambourine respectively. In the finale, Kay downs multiple vodka shots while stumbling around the room, as lights flash and music blasts. It’s the sort of spectacle which wouldn’t seem out of place in the Olivier.
Towards the beginning of the piece, we are asked to drink a toast of vodka, immediately drawing us in. Later, we write down memories of our own childhood and partake in a small wager. As the piece continues, it slowly becomes clear why these are relevent. It’s a beautifully structured piece of writing; sometimes, we are listening to facts about Kay’s ancestors, and the next about how the performance gestated. Both are interlinked, each utterly dependent on the other.
Kay is mesmerising. It’s a touchingly honest performance, if indeed you can call it a performance at all. It’s so clearly from the heart that it feels wrong to call it something normally associated with pretence and externalisation. He takes us on a journey, keeping us hooked from the moment we walk in. When he looks you in the eye, he’s talking to no one but you. It’s supported beautifully by Carlao’s ethereal soundscaping, created using random objects and a looping machine.
The small-scale spectacle of this performance is not hindered by the intimacy of the venue, nor vice versa. At its heart, It’s Like He’s Knocking is a story about how a man arrived where we are sitting. Kay’s script (can you call it that?) is brutally honest and charmingly poetic, and he pulls at strings in our own hearts which we were perhaps not aware of. Without wanting to sound like I’m hyperbolising, I haven’t left a performance feeling so emotionally drained since Jerusalem. But maybe that’s the vodka talking.