Billed as a ‘theatrical anthology’ and ‘a quasi-verbatim play’ based on 128 confessional survey responses, VESSEL is a tender yet powerful exploration of the struggles and joys of having a body. In a series of intersecting, but standalone episodes, VESSEL explores eating disorders, body image, and food-based relationships, whilst developing powerful themes of community, solidarity, and love. From two students meeting in a empty school bathroom at lunch, to a mother discussing her relationships with both the men in her life and her teenage daughter, to a young man who knows his size is the ‘elephant in the room’ for his family, each episode is treated sensitively and compassionately, knitting together a two hour long performance which seems to fly by.
Olusola’s writing is elevated by some standout performances, including the actor in ‘Femi’ (Tariro Tinarwo), who’s monologue is partially sung in a haunting, chest-wrenching voice, and the pair of friends in ‘He’s Fine’ (Bronte Sherborne and Laetita Hosie) whose back-and-forth banter conceals a serious discussion of the difficulties of navigating romantic and platonic relationships when lacking self-esteem. Perhaps the most intense yet memorable episode is ‘Old Friends’, positioned thought-provokingly before the interval, in which two childhood best friends (played by Ellie Reeves and Joan Kanyago) meet at a party years after losing touch. It slowly becomes apparent that the two drifted apart due to one friend experiencing a destructive eating disorder, and that both are still coping with the consequences. ‘Old Friends’ demonstrates VESSEL’s strength, in shaping rounded characters and a depth of feeling in only short, episodic duologues and monologues. Similarly, ‘Reality TV’, whilst a deceptively humorous satire on noughties TV culture of body-shaming and sex, has a hard-hitting impact which is all the more painful given the formerly light tone.
The production is full of hits, but there are a couple of misses too — the first episode, a Zoom dialogue between three girls in the midst of lockdown, is painfully awkward, which, while capturing the mood of the early pandemic, immediately jars the audience whilst failing to elicit much emotional response. Similarly, some dance sequences err on the side of GCSE devising. Whilst the play might have benefitted from a few cuts, its rocky start did not deduct from the overall power of the production.
The silent but intimate moments between characters from different episodes passing on the stage struck me as particularly powerful, creating moments of connection which were poignant and touching, a stark reminder of the webs of support, but also of shared suffering, which bind people together. One brief moment, where the protagonists of ‘Old Friends’ and ‘Elephant in the Room’ (the latter played by Charlie Jones), perhaps the two strongest pieces, mirror one another, was particularly striking. These brief moments reflect the play’s overall attention to detail and sensitivity, particularly important given its potentially distressing subject matter, for which Olusola and her team must be commended. When the characters from ‘Reality TV’ reappear at the end of the anthology, their story is infused with the language of hope and healing, as well as an awareness of the difficulties with which all VESSEL’s characters have grappled.
With a multimedia approach, mixing dance, music, and words, as well as technology, VESSEL is one of a series of productions this year responding to post-pandemic theatre with innovation and flexibility. Credit must go to the creative team, whose deceptively simple set of cut out food packaging is built upon throughout the show, creating a tableau of different ways people relate to their own bodies. At the end of the show, audience members were even invited to add their own reflections to this thought-provoking tableau, emphasising the production’s aim of starting conversations and community engagement.
The body is a vessel, which carries us through life, but it is also the site of so much turmoil and pain. It is this tension — the beauty and the agony of being embodied, of being in body — that VESSEL captures, from the subtle dance routines to the deep moments of intimacy between characters. There is an irony in all this, of course, as the character Carmen (played by Rose Faure), a young actor thwarted from her favourite role by a bullying mean girl, points out. Each of these actors is a body, and it is their bodies — their strength, talent, and compassion — which makes this play as powerfully moving as it is.