This show did not have an auspicious start – six performers milling around the stage, sharing in-jokes and nattering away – but appearances can be deceptive.
Led by Olivia Sweeney as narrator Jessie, this mixed troupe of musicians and actors combine fluidly to tell a rambunctious story of love, life, and loss, at blistering pace and with fierce emotion.
Sweeney dominates, striding lankily around the stage all mouthy and boisterous – at least on the surface. Her aggressive Leeds tones are met by the sublime voice of Robyn Sinclair as rising artist Allie; given her exceptional vocals, it’s a role that doesn’t need much acting.
Writer James Meteyard plays a vital and redemptive bit part, alongside Megan Ashley, Ben Simon, and Chris Georgiou, who predominantly work the audio side of the piece with occasional small speaking parts.
It’s a style that has been termed gig theatre, but to label it is to cheapen it: what Electrolyte is, is exceptional storytelling. While sharper audience members may guess the key twists ahead of time, the delight is in Meteyard’s script: an extended poem that despite its dominant rhymes feels entirely unforced in its delivery.
This isn’t tricksy, affected performance poetry, it is skilled and pleasurable writing in a theatrical tradition that goes back to the iambic pentameter and the rhyming couplet. This is a story of youth, pharmaceutical excess, a search for family, and switched perceptions: hardly alien concepts to Shakespeare, who also threw in the odd song – and no one calls him gig theatre.
Donnacadh O’Briain’s direction is disarmingly smart. While there is undoubted tension and drama, in between scenes and at the edges of the action the cast remain extraordinarily warm and informal, playful as genuine friends. We are lulled into the theatrical deceit, making the emotionally wrenching events played out all the more impactful.
This isn’t a show to see for its format or construction though. It’s a show to see because it is exceptionally well written and performed and because like the best theatre, it takes you places you didn’t expect to go.