Encounter originally created The Kids Are Alright to be performed live on council estates in London and Newcastle; then England was placed back into lockdown so the performances had to be abandoned. But the night before the restrictions came into force, they filmed the show in one continuous take on Evelyn Estate in Deptford.
Karen and Keith are struggling to come to terms with the death of their daughter. Clutching to one another for help in dealing with their grief, they’re also a taunting reminder to each other of their mutual loss. They bicker over the big stuff and the small: where should they spread her ashes? Who remembers her most clearly? Who feels her loss most keenly? They rake over memories, drag up distant arguments, attempt occasionally to be kind and ricochet off each other in confusion.
Part play, part site-specific dance, part performance art, this is an extraordinary piece of work. Created by Jen Malarkey and Lee Mattinson, it’s an attempt to capture the nature of grief in all its ugly, all-consuming glory. Mattinson’s script evokes the brutal fury and the claustrophobic impotence of people trying to understand how and why their world has crumbled and turning on each other when they fail. “If I could scrape you out of my heart, I would.” At the same time, it’s occasionally very funny. All the while, Malarkey’s choreography is a visceral counterpoint that emphatically reinforces the crushing weight of the couple’s loss.
It’s a huge, difficult, and painful subject that is wrestled into submission with aplomb by performers Carl Harrison and Janet Etuk. Harrison is angular, awkward, uncomfortable to watch (in all the right ways), parading his grief with a peculiar relish. Etuk is understated, cautious in the face of the majesty of her grieving lover’s despair. Both switch comfortably, effortlessly, between shuddering emotion and the mundane minutiae of life.
The setting makes this performance all the more special. The team were gifted a picture perfect fade from day to dusk and the gradual illumination of the estate as night falls adds a lovely atmosphere. There’s a lovely contrast between the actors’ shameless parading of misery across the pavements and flowerbeds and the careful discretion of the passers-by, tucking themselves away into their houses.
Phoenix-like, this show has been clawed from the ashes and serves as a brilliant tribute to the ingenuity and resilience of Encounter, supported by production house Fuel. By making the private public in such a gloriously audacious way, they offer a thrilling taste of what the live show could have been and a perfectly formed piece of theatre in its own right.